The Animatress Pipeline

Filmmaking Adventures

Shoulder Girdle Tutorial

shouldergirdle 2In the 90’s when I was young and spoiled at Warner Bros., I was given the opportunity to revise a storyboard for an artist on the Batman series. I was very excited to get the work and did my best on the revision, but the artist I was working for saw a problem: despite multiple revisions, I could not draw a 3/4 on a character running away properly. At the time I was a junior at Cal Arts and I hadn’t learned how to break up the male torso yet. Little did I know, the muscle group that includes the trapezius, the latissimus and the lumber furrow, known to animators as “The Kite”, was the secret to finding the forms in the back. I didn’t learn that until senior year. I knew how to break up a female torso at any angle, but not a male. Thus another opportunity lost, because I did not take the time to observe men as much as women.

In my defense, there wasn’t much to look at in regards to male beauty in mid-90’s pret a porté fashion to inspire me. In influence of Morrissey, David Gahan and Robert Smith was gone and Kurt Cobain and Hip Hop was in—and never went awaaaaaay. Yeah, just try to find forms in grunge wear underneath all that flannel and over-sized clothing.


Unmade Beds

However, now that I am working on a film that is a culmination of twenty years of experience as a professional, I take issue with my shortcomings on a personal level. Hence, the floating girdle tutorials.

As you see here, this upshot of Fred, Kate and Cindy is pretty flat. Sure the roughs look pretty at a glance, but any traditional animation veteran will tell you that the clean ups/inks will be flat because there isn’t enough information in the rough and as it turns out, they’d be correct.

By “information” in animation we mean form. Form is difficult to achieve if you don’t know anatomy well. The situation worsen when an artist stumbles across a region of anatomy with minimal landmarks. Hence we have part two of the floating girdle tutorials: The Shoulder Girdle.

The shoulder girdle and torso on a man is a tricky bit of machinery. When developed it is easy to find the forms needed to structure the torso, but when there is no definition, it is an indecipherable mass that is difficult to draw. Unlike women, men have no flared hips to provide land marks for the torso. Sure there is the rib cage, but the rib cage is not a very inspiring structure to draw. There needs to be more to keep the artist interested in the body and maintain volumes when turning a male character around.

Most life male life models use the doryphoros stance as their main 20 minute pose, but what an animator and sequential artist needs is movement. Few models can hold a dynamic pose for 20-40 minutes, so what I suggest is taking screen captures from film footage and tracing over the subject to study the forms. If you really want to get meticulous you can import video into Flash, early versions of the applications are best if you still have you old computers around. They import video without a bunch of aS3 settings to deal with or you can simply open an aS2 file. However, for this tutorial screen captures and Adobe Illustrator will be used.


First we gesture draw to loosen up.

The dancer in this piece has a nicely defined torso and is moving in a way that is useful for comics and film. He may be performing interpretive dance, but it is easy to appropriate the poses for a superhero creating energy fields with their powers and characters fighting. This is great reference.

The kinesiology (muscle and bone) I used to structure the gesture of this character are the

  • clavicle
  • rib cage
  • pectorals
  • rhomboids
  • latissimus
  • obliques
  • trapezius

—and of course governed the weight with the pelvis. The head is the heaviest structure, but the pelvis is the ballast (counter weight) of the body. Notice how in the pics that don’t feature the back the muscle groups are still pulled towards the rear? This is because I am using the Kite as the governing muscle group.

The following images are of the kite visible from the side. The latissimus is the most visible muscle here and it’s a great way to split the body down the sagittal plane in profile shots. Isn’t Arnold and his colleagues great for this study?

The Kite is the largest muscle group that pertains to animation (with the diaphragm membrane to counter it in the front across the abdominals) in the torso, therefore all of the other muscles are attached to it either directly or via a neighboring muscle that is attached to the Kite. When drawing form, you must draw what is not visible. You do this by drawing using construction lines in a rough technical drawing before erasing what you don’t need after the “math” is done and then applying the final clean up line. That’s illustration. In animation, another sheet of paper is placed over the rough, which serves as an under-drawing and then a clean up line drawn on the fresh sheet of paper.

Below is a good example of the latissimus on adolescent boys. This is great if you are working on an action-adventure show like Teen Titans or Ben 10.

Let’s break down the reference.

This is a sequence from Angels With Dirty Faces. The boys are playing basketball and become aggressive when vying for the ball. This is good reference for fight scenes and working on sports themed cartoons like Space Jam and An Extremely Goofy Movie as well as the Bugs Bunny and Crusher shorts.

Swing struggles with the ball with another player. He is crouched over, so his back is partially exposed. This is a very difficult pose to draw from imagination. Usually, I map out the line of action to govern the gesture before drawing, but not here. There are a lot of obscured structures that must be eked out, so I drew the overall shape, using the egg and flower sack method and then sought the pelvis (drawn in blue) first. Weight is very, very important!

For the second tier of the exercise I included the line of action (green) and drew through the forms. While revising, I toggled the drawing layer on and off to find mistakes. My findings exposed my misinterpretation of the direction of the head in the reference layer, which I corrected. Then I corrected the anatomy. For example, the pectorals begin more at the center of the underarm not the rear. To make sure of my assumption, I found another scene which showed how the pecs attach under the arms neighboring the latissimus muscle which is part of the Kite to confirm.

As usual, good ol’ Swing provided the reference I needed. Here’s a good example of how the latissimus splits the body in half in the sagittal plane (side to side).

In the final stage, I deleted all the construction lines and tightened up the character. I now have a clean pose to use toward my animation or sequential art panel.

The Pectorals
Another part of the torso that is tricky is breaking up the pectoral muscles and attaching them to the shoulder girdle. A common mistake is to draw the pectorals like a breast and simply drawing a short line down the middle of the chest to suggest the pectorals for lithe build or puff breast indicated by a U-shape for a heavier build. This works great as a design that is not going to move much, but not for animation. Animators need more information.

From Tutorials

Studying the female form is not to bad of an idea for studying men. Especially women with well defined deltoids or who’s greater pectorals that are flat at the top near the deltoids are clearly distinguishable from the rest of the breast like Tilda Swinton in Orlando ( shown immediately above). The deltoids are the muscle on top and side of the greater pectoral/breast that spreads the cap of the upper arm. This muscle group includes the deltoid, pectorals major ( where the form is puffy or flat in areas on some women like the first female model shown) and pectorals minor ( where the nipple is). I have not learned of a euphemism for this structure, so let’s call it a “shelf”.

In this photo of Iggy Pop, you can see that he has very nicely developed deltoids. I broke it down a bit so you can see how everything connects. Note: I drew the map of the deltoids going through the pectorals, they really don’t attach that way. However, for the sake of execution a solid drawing I drew though the forms they neighbor. Remember drawing through shapes creates form. It’s what all animators must do, suspend your sense of reality sometimes.

Now as the arms move, the shelf flexes and contracts (or puffs up and flattens out if you prefer). It is very common for novice artists to draw this structure unchanging as the character moves, which is a mistake. It squashes and stretches just like the rest of the body, but remember all of that squash and stretch must work as part of the flow of the body. Easy enough. Just draw a line of action and you’ll know what the structure is doing according to the how the body is distributing it’s weight. For example, when the subject is lifting something and the arms are not extended, the shelf will contract. When the arms are extended the shelf will flex (flatten out). The body is meant to be functional. With the few exceptions like overly swollen breasts, an athletic body is designed aid the body in movement,not hinder it. So, as you see, no matter how puffy your muscles are, they will flatten out when they’re relaxed, just like Arnie and his friend’s muscles are here.

Putting it all together.
The muscle structure that connects the two halves of the body are the group around the waist, the abs, diaphragm membrane and obliques. Most animation character designers omit this area, so unless you have an obsession with the structure, you can skip it for now. Your character will probably run better without it anyway. However, if you design creatures, it may come in handy, so if you feel inclined, go find some nice oblique and abdominal reference. Have fun devising a name of your own to call it.

To whet you palette, here’s a good example of the obliques on the Transformers. Don’t scoff, this is a good way to study planes (no pun intended).

Here’s how I handled the obliques and shoulder girdle in the upshot of Fred. The obliques were actually necessary for this shot.

Revised Rough

The ink of this character will be much more solid now that the lapels of the suit are drawn to convey the forms of the shoulder girdle muscles underneath.

Your equilibrium will always correct distortions, so flip your drawings over a light table so your audience won’t see all of your mistakes.

I really can’t stress the importance of a light box enough. Even if you are a digital artist, you will still have to draw by hand sometimes, just for the precision of key scenes. Invest in a light table or light box. They can be pricey, but if you shop around schools, you’ll find that they’re willing to sell old equipment as they make room for the digital age. A class only needs a few light boxes, but previous generations of the course had thirty light boxes, one for each student. Hunt about and see if you can make a deal.

I’ve collected several light boxes over the years, including this whopper of a treasure for BG layout.

After learning how to structure an athletic ideal, draping girth on the body should be easier. Think of girth as clothes; just drape it off the muscle like starched clothing. Note the way I outlined James Cagney’s body here within his clothes. Can you think in reverse and substitute the cut of the suit for girth? Try it.

Eventually, when you are comfortable enough to actually have fun with the male form, you can play like Daemion George Cox here. For the women who this tutorial is mainly for, you’re at a disadvantage. Daemion is a guy, therefore he has a biological advantage for abstracting the male figure. Women who don’t see obliques when they look in the mirror everyday. But don’t despair. Daemions skill is not unattainable, but for a woman, perhaps it will just take a little while longer to match or even surpass. Regardless, have fun and loosen up when get the hang of drawing the make form.

Make it a habit of breaking down forms like this with screen captures. People move too quickly to jot down dynamic poses for tie down purposes from life. Sure it’s important to draw from life. That’s how you learn movement, so this technique is not a substitute for that. However, when it comes time tie down gestures, this is good practice. Here are more examples of analyzed forms and a more screen captures for you to drag to your desktop and practice on your own.

Good luck!

More Arnold

Oh, those darn obliques and now abdominals. Here’s a cartoon example of what to do with those darn things.

Here’s Edward G. Robinson He’s a stocky man, but he’s still elegant and agile in a suit

Also, try men of different ethnicities. See how much fuller the legs on this model are without having a wide super hero torso? It’s a trait on men as you move further east into Eurasia. This Native American yoga instructor, did not have to build his full legs. They’re just part of the natural flow of his body. Charlie Chaplin, who was Romani (originally from India, despite popular belief that Gyspies ( now a pejorative term, are from Egypt), had the same build. However, mankind does not just stay in one place and gene pools to integrate. Gene Kelly, who was Irish had full legs too, but he was also a dancer, so it’s up to speculation whether they were built along with his dance practice or an anomaly in his genetic make up. Most men we see who are of European decent, especially the North Sea, have thin legs while Asians, as mentioned before, have full legs.

Here’s an angle you probably wouldn’t think of out of your head.

Chris Hemsworth

Bruce Lee

Rocky Horror

Abercrombie and Fitch

Pop Quiz: Find both Dr. Frankenfurter’s shoulder girdle AND pelvis. Oh, those floating girdles. Tricky, but fun!

If you need a refresher on the pelvis, see the pelvis tutorial.

In a future post I’ll talk about how apply your sartorial aesthetic to the male figure. Now go make interesting male characters. It’s a boy’s world in the animation industry nowadays, ladies. But don’t despair and just make do, make the characters look better!

Kittens and Unicorns,


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