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Microsoft Used a Robot and an Xbox Controller to Shoot a Commercial

Michael Maher

See how Microsoft utilized Motorized Precision’s KIRA robotic camera arm to capture the Surface Studio launch video.

Top image via Microsoft/Motorized Precision

Microsoft stole the show from Apple last week when the company released this stunning video for their futuristic Surface Studio.

We previously talked all about the specs and the amazing tools developed for the Surface Studio, including the Surface Dial that will give you Tony-Stark-like control over apps — like using it as a color wheel in the Sketchable app.

Microsoft Used a Robot and an Xbox Controller to Shoot a Commercial - Surface Dial
Image via Microsoft

What we didn’t talk about was the Microsoft Surface Studio release video itself. Outside of of the work of the motion designers, visual designers, and the CG renders — the shots of the actress using the Surface Studio were shot practically using Motorized Precision’s KIRA.

KIRA is one of the latest in robotic camera arms. We first covered KIRA after its big splash at NAB 2016. The rig has a maximum height of 9 ft and can extend to 5.63 ft, weighing 570 lb — and the baseplate alone weighs in at a whopping 3400 lb. The KIRA has a maximum camera payload of 40 lbs and can move 3.2 ft in 0.5 seconds.

Here’s a look at the KIRA in action.

I wanted to know more about the development and production of this commercial, so I reached out to Sean Brown, the President of Motorized Precision. Here’s what I learned about the Microsoft Surface Studio spot.

The Microsoft Hardware Design Team reached out to Motorized Precision to create and execute the motion control shots for the launch video. Shot at Cinerent West in Portland, Oregon, the KIRA was equipped with a RED EPIC DRAGON and Canon 15.5-47 mm lens. 

Microsoft Used a Robot and an Xbox Controller to Shoot a Commercial - KIRA on set
Image via Microsoft / Motorized Precision

There have been some updates to KIRA since NAB, including updates to the MP Studio app — which coincidentally runs on Windows machines. The KIRA also added new camera mounts and is currently testing a new modular track system set to launch next year.

Microsoft Used a Robot and an Xbox Controller to Shoot a Commercial - Microsoft Surface Studio
Image via Microsoft / Motorized Precision

As far as the Windows Surface Studio shoot goes, KIRA was chosen for its ability to repeat moves. Some shots required precise movements, like the multi-pass from the front of the Surface Studio to the back of the machine. The Microsoft Surface team had a series of pre-viz shots created in Cinema4D and Maya — which helped guide and program the KIRA’s motion control movements.

After looking at a pre-viz shot, we would take about 5-20 minutes per shot to test it out and modify it for the real-world production. Then it comes down to testing the moves with talent and seeing how creative we can get with lighting and set.

Microsoft Used a Robot and an Xbox Controller to Shoot a Commercial - Controlling KIRA
Image via Microsoft / Motorized Precision

The KIRA is programmed through the MP Studio app and can be controlled with an Xbox One Elite controller.  Above, you can see Sean Brown on set using the controller. With it, he can jog the robot into place and set keyframes within the MP Studio timeline to save moves.

When we push left on the left joystick the robot moves left and when we push left on the right joystick it pans left etc. We made it so simple and intuitive to control that we were able to focus on the creative and not worry about the technology.

Also within app, Brown can control the focus, iris, and zoom — giving him total control over every shot.

Microsoft Used a Robot and an Xbox Controller to Shoot a Commercial - Shooting the Commercial
Image via Microsoft / Motorized Precision

I asked about the difficulty of lighting a moving computer monitor, especially while the camera was in motion.

The lighting team worked very well with both Motorized Precision and the Microsoft team to make sure we achieved the most clean and sexy look we could for this shoot. Yes, a big screen does present challenges, but we were able to solve them by having KIRA do the same move over and over and see where we might find any problem spots.

Microsoft Used a Robot and an Xbox Controller to Shoot a Commercial - Live on Set
Image via Microsoft / Motorized Precision

I finally asked about Brown’s impression of the Surface Studio itself, and how he could see himself using the device.

I love the Microsoft Surface Studio from a KIRA control standpoint. We developed MP Studio originally as a touch app. On the Surface Studio I was finally able to see that app come to life with Touch Control that made sense! So I was very impressed by the product.  The Dial on set was controlling some amazing color wheels inside some of the apps used in the launch video and it was very impressive to see all the different functionality they were able to get from such a simple device.

Microsoft Surface Studio Launch Video Shoot Credits: 

  • Jamie Fish
  • Amber Geiger

Director of Photography

Grip & Electric

Microsoft Hardware Design Team

  • Brittany Rediger
  • Nick Bauer
  • Young Kim
  • Jeff McCartney