Designing A Bionic Future For Prosthetics With Xsens

Motion capture and the field of motion measurement are widely used in both sports and creative visual media. But in this recent short film, ‘Protesys’ by acclaimed Brazilian director, Afonso Poyart, the worlds of sport science and Hollywood collide, and Xsens MVN Animate is at the center of production.

Afonso’s filmmaking career has earned him a highly regarded place in the global film industry, directing films such as Two Rabbits (2012), Solace (2015), and Mais Forte que o Mundo: A História de José Aldo (2016), to name a few. In Protesys, conventional wisdom surrounding sports is challenged head-on, tackling the increasing role technology plays in professional sports. In particular, the film – shot convincingly as a fictional documentary – focuses on the potential for high-powered, bionic prosthetics that take a step beyond assistance for para-athletes, elevating users to superhuman levels of performance. Afonso partnered with VFX studio, Picma Post, to design the short film’s photorealistic visuals, creating a convincing and realistic technology concept, all despite being set in an entirely fictional context.

We spoke with Afonso Poyart and Rodrigo Elias, founding partner and production supervisor at Picma Post, about the film’s inception, production, and the studio’s future projects.

Perceiving Protesys

Afonso was inspired by the incredible feats achieved by today’s para-athletes on the world stage, taking a keen interest in the role of advancements in prosthetic limbs. As prosthetic technology continues to improve, para-athletes are beginning to edge closer to the level of able-bodied sports stars, which begs the question: could robotic technology turn the tables?

“We’ve started to see current-day parathletes, with the help of modern prosthetics, beginning to enter into higher and higher levels of sporting achievement, this inspired the basis of the film idea,” said Afonso. “What would happen if they equalled, and then bettered able-bodied athletes?” continued Afonso. With this concept in mind, Afonso opted to sculpt a world containing a new bionic prosthetic that while beyond today’s capabilities, feels like an entirely possible adaptation. You’d be forgiven for taking the premise of the film as fact, especially as it’s presented in a documentary form that demonstrates the technology as market-ready. It even stars an active, Brazilian para-athlete, Flavio Reitz: “Flavio is a real para-athlete from the Olympics – it’s like real life meets fiction. In the story, this futuristic tech company hires Flavio to test the new equipment,” explained Afonso.

The bionic technology developed by the company goes far beyond normal expectations. Rather than just replacing the limb with something inactive, the new bionic prosthetic enhances the user’s physical ability to superhuman levels and is controlled like a regular limb using a computer chip implanted in the brain. Elon Musk’s Neuralink technology played some part in the inspiration for the brain implant idea. “Neuralink definitely provided some inspiration for the chip that connects the motor cortex in the brain with the robotic limbs. However, I didn’t want to fool people too much or give false hope – we wanted to create something that plays with the audience but becomes clearer as the film plays out. It’s too high-tech for today,” said Afonso.

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Production Process

Through its high production standard, the short film manages to blur the line between fiction and reality, particularly in the CG animated sections that show off the prosthetic technology. To achieve this, the VFX studio utilized motion capture to generate realistic movements of athletes performing a range of sports. “When we first started discussing the idea and concept for the short film, we realized we needed an accurate mocap suit to record athletic movements. Here in Brazil, we don’t have lots of mocap studios or specialists, but our research led us to Xsens as the best solution. We talked a lot with the Xsens team when setting up to get the highest quality data,” explained Rodrigo. With a short time frame to learn how to use Xsens, the team found the technology’s ease-of-use and adaptability invaluable to the production process.

“It was a really straightforward process for us. Picma had never operated a full mocap system and it was a learning process from scratch. Despite this, we were able to pick it up quickly,” said Afonso. “We were able to complete a lot of mocap directly on an athletics track. Nobody has capabilities like Xsens to complete sessions such as this,” continued Afonso. 

With the ability to record athletes live on the track, the Picma Post team could record the full-body motion of boxers, dancers, and high jumpers with ease, generating the realistic, CG animation seen throughout the film. Picma used several stunt doubles for Flavio's routines, harmoniously merging the shots together. “Flavio is unable to use a real prosthetic leg and can’t walk. So every shot where he is walking is a double. We also hired a High Jumper for some of the shots too,” said Afonso. “We actually had three stuntmen for Flavio, one for jumping, running, and the body! added Rodrigo. “But of course, we only recorded the initial steps of Flavio’s jump with Xsens. We also had some wired cables that raised him during the recording session. As soon as he took off and went upwards, we’d cut, so the rest of the jump was all CG.” 

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“For the CG parts, we used a combination of Maya and Arnold. And every compositing shot is completed in Nuke. For now, we’re using HumanIK inside Maya to apply the mocap data and a custom rig using HumanIK as our base for the robot. We’re looking to develop custom rigs in the future,” said Rodrigo. Even high-impact movements resulted in no loss of data for the team, with the durability of the Xsens sensors proving very reliable. “We recorded a high jumper with Xsens to jump at a lower height to acquire all of the movement data as an athlete crosses over the bar. The data came out very clean, all despite the athletes hitting the mattresses with maximum force – the sensors worked fine,” explained Afonso.

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Feature Film

The short is a stand-alone film in its own right, but it actually exists within a much larger universe designed by Afonso to encompass a feature-length, parallel story.

“The short film is a case study for a feature film in production. We have a script and are just entering the production stages – the short film takes place in the same universe as the feature and acts as a precursor,” said Afonso. “The movie portrays a world where prosthetics are incredibly advanced. We’ve focused on different athletic sports where para-athletes use bionic limbs to become super athletes. The sporting audience and sponsors flip their interest into the bionic sports, able-bodied athletes become less significant as they’re unable to compete with para-athletes,” continued Afonso. “There will be two sisters, both athletes, one disabled and one able-bodied. When this technological revolution happens, the sister with the disability becomes the star, replacing the prospects of the able-bodied sister. It’s really about rivalry and what people are prepared to do to achieve success.”

The feature film will take a more conventional cinematic approach, rather than the fictional documentary style of the short. But the questions touched upon in Protesys will be expanded into realistic scenarios that are bound to cause contention. As Afonso states: “We always associate sports with physicality, but it seems to me that it’s much more about mental and emotional dexterity. If the robotics extends our physical ability to a higher level and really lowers difficulty constraints, what will differentiate the best athletes? Everyone might want a bionic limb, whether they need one or not.”

You can check out the full short film here, and keep your eyes peeled for further developments of the full feature film.

 

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