Lights, robots, action! How Motorized Precision shoots the impossible

From high-end advertisements to Hollywood movies, Portland, Oregon-based Motorized Precision is responsible for some of the smoothest, fastest, and most complex camera moves ever produced. The four-person motion control company designs custom software to run on a variety of robotic platforms, opening up a whole new world of camera movement possibilities for cinematographers. The team may be small, but it has already made a big name for itself with credits in the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok and that super slick announcement video for the Microsoft Surface Studio, among many others.

Digital Trends visited Motorized Precision in its Portland studio – a space the company is quickly growing out of – for a live demonstration of its Kira robot. (If you missed our Facebook Live broadcast, you can watch the full video below. The real action starts around the 18-minute mark). Kira offers six-axis motion control and can support payloads weighing up to 40 pounds, perfect for large cinema cameras from the likes of Arri, Red, and Phantom. While smaller cameras are also supported (including mirrorless and DSLR models), for the ultra-fast motion that the Kira is capable of, a high-end camera with a global shutter is pretty necessary. The robot also costs $4,000 a day to rent, so this isn’t something that amateurs are likely to be using.

The Kira certainly isn’t the first motion control robot to be used in cinema production, but as founder and CEO Sean Brown explained, there’s nothing else that can do what it can do.

“Kira is unique in that it can move very fast or very slow,” Brown told Digital Trends. In fact, it can move up to three meters per second, but it can also creep along much more slowly without sacrificing smoothness. That makes it perfect for both slow motion and time-lapse sequences –and anything in between.

For our demo, the Kira was outfitted with a Phantom Flex4K set to record at 1,000 frames per second (fps) for extreme slow-motion playback. Our shot would be fairly straightforward: As we poured beer into a Digital Trends pint glass, the camera would whip around the glass in about a second’s time, capturing the pour from multiple angles in one mouthwatering shot.

To program the motion control for our shot, Brown used an off-the-shelf Xbox One controller to move the Kira.

To set up the camera motion, Brown walked us over to a PC running the company’s MP Studio software. MP Studio looks a lot like any 3D animation program, with a timeline of key frames, an animated model of the Kira to digitally preview the move, and even a live video window. Beyond camera movement, a host of other parameters can also be controlled, including focus, iris (aperture), and zoom. Timecode triggers can also be set, allowing other connected devices to activate at specific frames, such as a pneumatic actuator.

To program the motion control for our shot, Brown used an off-the-shelf Xbox One controller to move the Kira in real-time, establishing beginning and ending positions as well as making focus adjustments, all of which showed up as key frames in MP Studio that could then be retimed and adjusted. The process is so easy that a simple shot like ours could be set up in about 30 seconds, and anyone with basic animation or video editing knowledge could likely hop right in and do it without much of a learning curve. Brown confirmed that ease-of-use was another of Kira’s big advantages over competing products, which often require complex coding to program the shot.

With the Kira ready and the beer only getting warmer, it was now time to execute. Brown told us they were hoping to work on a “pouring machine” in the future to remove another human variable from this type of shot, but for now we would be dispensing the beer by hand. This resulted in a rather embarrassing party foul on our first attempt, but we figured things out by the time we ran the motion control sequence again. You can watch the final shot as recorded by the Phantom Flex 4K at 1,000 fps below. We don’t think we’ve ever seen a PBR look so good.