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Behind the scenes of our Microsoft Surface Duo intro shot

Faking it and making it

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Grayson Blackmon / Vjeran Pavic / The Verge

Here we are again: it’s that time of year when every company starts announcing and releasing their amaze-o flagship phones, and we like to go just as big when we review them. For our iPhone 11 Pro review last September, we made one of our most ambitious and artistic opening shots ever. So unfortunately, that means we have a brand-new baseline of production quality. Tough for us, good for you!

Our Microsoft Surface Duo review came out yesterday, and for obvious reasons, we didn’t have access to our usual set of cool toys, so we had to get creative. The end result was this shot: a composition of a 3D re-creation and practical footage, created in tandem on both sides of America in the space of just a few days.

While our iPhone 11 Pro opening shot was all practical, this time, we decided to blend a practical shot with 3D. Without extremely expensive equipment, some movements are just impossible to film — and an unfolding, floating, spinning phone is one of them.

Let me pull back the curtain to show you how it was done.

The first thing I like to do when planning a shot like this is pre-vis, or visualizing what the shot will look like. Planning the shot in Cinema 4D before filming makes having a conversation with team members about what we need to accomplish a whole lot easier. It lets us plan our shot lists and make sure we get everything needed for the final composite. It also gets me comfortable working with whatever model and texturing we’re using if it’s going to be a composite 3D / practical shot. Another nice bonus is we can actually plan out these shots before we even get the device in hand.

Next is practical shooting. Vjeran Pavic, our fantastic senior video director, shot this on a skeleton set in San Francisco — basically just a wooden desktop, lights, and some reflectors.

I had a list of things he needed to get for me to be able to seamlessly blend a 3D render of the Surface Duo into a real practical shot, including the camera ISO, lens, focal length, and f-stop. There’s an entire industry of talented professionals whose job it is to build assets for others to create with, so we were able to purchase a model from an online marketplace rather than re-creating the Duo from scratch.

Along with a ton of reference photos, one of the most important things I needed was a (mostly) 360-degree photo of the set that I could use to re-create the lighting and reflections of the scene.

The key to planning out these shots is to work backward: know where you want to end up, and getting there is easy. So we shot the Duo in its landing position so that Vjeran could flip it closed and pick it up. After matching the starting position of the model to the first practical frame in C4D, all I had to do was map the original shot’s textures directly onto the model so the two would be indistinguishable when laid on top of each other, and we’d almost be there.

The last 5 percent of any project tends to be the most difficult — and also when you may have the most self-doubt. “Will this work?” “People are going to obviously see the transition.” “It’ll never work.” One of the most difficult aspects is re-creating the imperfections of reality: camera movement, drifting focus, etc. But after some perseverance and painstaking After Effects magic to match the color, film grain, blur, and motion, you finally get there — and it feels great.