The Upright Digitigrade Problem

The Problem

So, a while ago I posted about anthropomorphism — specifically, how I planned to handle it in my graphic novel, Żużel and the Fox. 

But one thing that has persistently nagged at me is the mechanics of digitigrade legs. Many characters in the world of Żużel and the Fox will have to get around on their hind digits while walking upright.

A number of questions arise — for instance,

  • Should digitigrade characters maintain an upright, plantigrade-style posture?
  • Should they be drawn as if walking plantigrade — in effect, short-legged, long-footed humans?
  • What’s the physics of how they would move?

The Solution (at least in one case)

I was having real trouble wrapping my head around basic things like walking. How would I draw that? What would the stride look like?

So, I figured I might as well try to animate it. Here is my result:



It seems like the solution for Żużel is to almost separate her thorax and abdomen, and place the thorax forward. To keep her center of gravity where it needs to be, she walks with an almost military posture — her head and shoulder thrown backwards.

What keeps this from looking awkward (in my opinion) is the excellent line of action it creates. From the crown of her head, down her spine, along her tail — it’s all one sweeping curve:

zuzelwalkLOAAnd that curve seems to be the key. It keeps the character design cohesive, no matter what part of the stride she’s in. It’s almost like an optical illusion — tricking the eye into ignoring the fact that she’s basically falling forward.

So, for me, using a brief animation was a way to break through a mental barrier. I’m now looking at the digitigrade problem in a new way. Hopefully it gave you something to think about too, if you are a cartoonist. Let me know in the comments!



16 throughts on "The Upright Digitigrade Problem"

  1. Hey, that’s a good idea. I always wondered how they could walk, y’know, in the anthropomorphic comics/shows in which their bodies aren’t fully human.
    This is a good idea, like I said, also for myself because I suck at human legs.

    (happy holidays)

  2. I’ve been researching digitigrade vs. plantigrade locomotion because of a story I’ve written. (I was having a hard time deciding if I wanted the animaloid creatures in the story to be fully digitigrade or fully plantigrade.) I came upon your animation of one of your creations. There is something you might want to consider that crossed my mind as I wrote my story. Why would a bipedal animal need a tail? I eliminated the tail in my animaloids without even considering animating them. (I did this because I had to laugh at the Japanese anime in which the bipedal animals they create always had a tail and wore clothing which would require a hole in their clothes for the tail.) What do you think of my idea?

    1. Hi there! It’s a good question, and I guess if you’re approaching the problem from biology/evolution, then a biped doesn’t “need” a tail. So, point taken. But that doesn’t mean bipedalism implies no tail, or vice versa. Other hominids without tails (chimps, orangutans) sometimes move bipedally, sometimes don’t; other primates with tails, like macaques and spider-monkeys, sometimes walk bipedally. There are other bipeds with tails–kangaroos, ostriches, velociraptors, etc.

      So… I guess I’m saying that, from the biological perspective, I’m not bothered by anthropomorphic/animaloid characters having tails and walking plantigrade.

      But my thinking is usually more design oriented, and so I am bothered by character designs with bad lines of action. And a long tail on a cat or fox character provides a lot of opportunities for composition and visual language that implies action, balance, imbalance, etc.

  3. I am working on book 2 of my fantasy series, The Wards of Iasos. I am toying around with a biped, rabbit-like race of people. The issue I am having is that rabbits are plantigrade. Yet, much of the rabbit-based creatures in fantasy are depicted as digitigrade. Would a biped rabbit-like creature be digitigrade? Seems most of the hopping creatures are plantigrade like humans. While it’s a small detail, attention to detail is very important to me. I teach at a science-based public elementary and middle school. I want to think about the science beyond what looks cool. Digitigrade rabbit looks pretty beast, but is there any biology behind such a thing and also allow it to hop? I would appreciate your thoughts. BTW, I teach the comic book club at my school. I have a huge collection of comics and graphic novels that kids can check out and read.

    Thank you for any thoughts you can contribute. It would help me greatly.

    1. I’ve seen plantigrade anthropomorphic done well. But the issue, I find, is that they don’t blend well in a world where other anthro animals are digitigrade–the plantigrade folks just look shorter, or like they have huge feet… anyway, my advice is to think about what role anatomy and locomotion is going to play in your fiction. If it’s important that your rabbit characters hop–if this serves a narrative purpose, if there’s hopping related pay-off in the third act, etc.–then make your anatomical decisions based off of that.

      In my opinion its more important that the “science” of a fictional world be consistent with its own logic, than consistent with “real world” science.

  4. I draw cartoons as well, and I gotta say, this seems more sensible than the way I draw my characters. I would usually draw them with a raptor-like awkward stance when standing or walking, or having their legs retracted and have them sit whenever they “stand”, which would only give them a four-legged walk cycle. This actually now gives me more freedom in animating some of my characters I am trying to create upright. Thanks!

  5. I found this while doing some digitigrade research for a video game and it was **ridiculously** helpful, to the degree that I can say you’ve saved my protagonist from looking like a dumbass. Thanks!

    1. hey, sorry I’m just seeing this comment–thanks for posting, and I’m glad the article was helpful! hope to see your game or some dev art some day!

  6. What did you think of the characters walking plantigrade in the movie Zootopia? Some people criticized they should’ve been digitigrade in accordance to their species and what are your thoughts on Pokemon walking digitigrade like Lucario, Zoroark and plantigrade like Cinderace?

    1. Thanks for your comment! Honestly the digitigrade/plantigrade issue in Zootopia seems like part of a bigger design problem. They wanted to tell a story where there was the underlying risk of animals “going savage,” so of course they had to make design choices that would support that story. I can deal with inconsistent “biological” rules when they are done for the sake of design or story consistency… But I wouldn’t call Zootopia super consistent in either respect. Regarding Pokémon… I don’t think there’s any real attempt at creature design consistency haha, so nitpicking the use of plantigrade vs. digitigrade on that grounds seems pointless to me…

  7. Thanks for the reply! I also know if you are aware of a web series on youtube called Satellite City. It is…. interesting, but I wanted to know if the characters are having digitigrade postures correctly, such as the video that came out recently when a character has long legs and constantly walks on his toes and the way he dances. But of course that is only a matter of opinion.

  8. Hello there! It’s me again, I posted a question regarding the Youtube series called Satellite City from Fwnnah, and a few months ago the creator stated that the show will be rebooted called First Night and I wish to know your opinion regarding the alien like species called the Kivouachians being digitigrade as bipedal humanoids, characters such as Lucy, Celia, Winifred, etc and if such a feat is possible in real life and your opinion in the matter you can look at Youtube or the Twitter account the creator posted.

  9. This was massively helpful. I’ve struggled with digitigrade leg walk cycles for some of the characters in the game I’m making, but feel as though I’ve made quite a bit of progress after studying your gif. Still need to work on the flow of the rest of the body, but I wanted to say thank-you!
    This is the current WIP I made from studying your gif.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *