Behind-the-scenes: Rocky Morphology

Happy New Year! One of my new year’s resolutions is to blog more — we’ll see how that goes.

2013 was pretty busy with the birth of my second daughter Flora and settling into a new home. Beyond my personal life, work at Fathom has been quite busy and rewarding. We continue to work on a lot of interesting data visualization projects, but unfortunately I can’t share most the of the work I’ve done at this time.


Rocky Morphology screenshot

One personal project—released in early December—I’m happy to share is Rocky Morphology. You can check out the full project and description here (or tap on the screenshot above). Below is some of the process that went into the creation of Rocky Morphology.


Rocky Morphology paper sketches

First, like many personal projects or sketches at Fathom, they start around the lunch table. I was sharing some of my childhood stories and the topic of Rocky movies came up. We were debating what the best Rocky movie was. In my mind Rocky I was always the best, but Rocky IV is the overall crowd pleaser. What’s more interesting was our discussion about the narrative arc and overall formula the movies all seem to hold. I started looking into examples of narrative arc to see how similar plot points within the Rocky movies overlap.


I thought about some books I’ve read dealing with narrative structure and character development. In particular Morphology of the Folktale by Vladimir Propp and The Hero with a Thousand Faces by by Joseph Campbell. Both books break down stories into their most basic narrative and character components. I wanted to see how this could be applied to the Rocky movies.


Rocky: 1 frame per second (detail)


Rocky: one frame per second (detail)

We generated a quick processing sketch that ripped one frame per one second of film in each movie. This was a really nice way to have a visual overview of all the movies. I found it interesting to see all the movies recompiled in this way. Immediately I saw some clear overlap within some of the scenes. Looking at the frames both horizontally and vertically, it created a new narrative which I also thought was interesting, but it wasn’t enough. It was a bit confusing and I didn’t think people would understand what I was trying to get at.


Rocky Morphology data collection

I finally realized what I needed to do, there was no getting around it. I sat down, opened a beer, and watched all six Rocky movies. With Adobe Premiere I started marking In and Out points for all the different scenes in each movie. I then distilled down all the different scenes into six categories (Dialogue, Training, Montage, Pre Fight, Fight and Credits). With a basic excel doc I was able to parse the data to create the bar charts and structure of Rocky Morphology.

I’m excited to find so many other people interested in this project. We got over one hundred thousand hits in the first couple days and the numbers keep climbing. Thanks for all the support and be on the look out for the next random idea that might come up at lunch.


Fast Company: The Plot Of Every Rocky Movie, Deconstructed

BuzzFeed: Extremely Detailed “Rocky” Breakdown Deserves A Nobel Prize In Movie Science

FlowingData: Rocky movie breakdown

Deadspin: Where Are The Sweet Montages? Breaking Down The Rocky Movies By Scene

boing boing: On the structure of Rocky movies

news by design: Rocky Morphology

2.10 Blink

There can be as much value in the blink of an eye as in months of rational analysis. — Malcolm Gladwell

Subconscious Intuition
Every year during the first week of classes, the Graphic Design MFA Department photographs the entire group of current and incoming students. It’s a great way to get to know everyone within the group. The night before the first day of classes, I had a dream that my fellow classmate, Dinah Fried, and I were discussing the class photo. In the dream she said we should create mini-animations of everyone’s faces blinking. I thought that was a great idea! The dream was so real I woke up the next day and was not sure if she had actually suggested the idea to me before or if it was a dream. Sure enough I talked to her about this, and she assured me it must have been a dream. But she agreed it was a good idea, and along with another classmate, Adam Lucas, they agreed to help me bring this dream to reality. Over the course of the semester, I expanded this idea into a printed poster and an interactive website, (with the help of another classmate, Ali Qadeer). Finally, with the help of Fathom Information Design (where I was conducting an independent study), I turned Blink into a large-scale physical interactive installation.

Waking Up the Wall
Blink, an interactive projection, was featured in the RISD Graphic Design MFA 2011 Biennial at the Sol Koffler Gallery. Blink showcases all thirty-eight students within the Graphic Design program in the large lobby outside the gallery that was home to this piece. In order to interact with the projection, a viewer enters the marked area on the floor in front of the projection. A camera on the ceiling senses the movement, and the faces on the projection blink. The faces on the wall correspond to their names that are marked on the floor. If one is standing on one particular name, it makes only that individual blink. The more people that are in the area, the more faces will blink. If no one stands in the area, all the faces on the projection close their eyes as if they are asleep. While enjoying the opening reception, Blink became a recursive interaction and a great conversation piece. It was also my first experiment with interactive installation, using motion detection. For the first time, I experienced the sensation of feeling design with my whole body.

Camera Set Up Top View
1. Motion Detection Camera
2. Projector

Blink, Video Still

Blink, Video Still

2.11 Incarceration Vacation

Enjoying the Ride
Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life explores the everyday operating in society. He describes strategies and tactics that identify behaviors in the everyday. Strategies become a way for corporations, governments and big businesses to control people as well as the environment around them. Tactics are ways that individuals negotiate these worlds. Certeau claims, “individuals employ strategies by constantly manipulating events in order to turn them into opportunities.” Certeau describes the experience of riding the train as an example of the chasm between the strategy and the tactic: the train is a strategy—it is part of a larger system that incarcerates passengers. However, I feel that a passenger like myself can use tactics to overcome this system, making each trip a mini-vacation of sight and sound.

Slice of Time
Certeau eloquently describes the literal and figurative separation of the train and the travelers as “The iron rail whose straight line cuts through space and transforms the serene identities of the soil into the speed with which they slip away into the distance. The windowpane is what allows us to see, and the rail, is what allows us to move through.” Travelers are incarcerated within a controlled system, and at the same time, they are set free by a sensorial experience.

The repetition of the commute has become a compressed slice of time for me. Incarceration Vacation visualizes this concept through video, simultaneously capturing both the interior of the train car and the view out the window. In both the interior and the exterior, video time is compressed. The interior view is sped up, showing only one frame for every thirty-seconds of footage. The exterior view compresses into a one-pixel vertical slice per video frame; thus, visualizing the landscape similar to an impressionist painting.

2.15 Panopticon of Joy

Elevation, section and plan of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, drawn by Willey Reveley, 1791

False Security
In Discipline and Punish, philosopher Michel Foucault builds on philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s conceptualization of a panopticon as he elaborates upon the function of disciplinary mechanisms in the prison, while illustrating the function of discipline as an apparatus of power. The “panoptic” style of architecture may be used in other institutions with surveillance needs such as schools, factories or hospitals. The ever-visible inmate, Foucault suggests, is always “…the object of information, never a subject in communication.” As hinted at by the architecture, this panoptic design can be used for any “population” that needs to be kept under observation or control, such as prisoners, schoolchildren, medical patients or workers.

Panopticon of Joy Camera Set Up 1–7 Top View

With all the documentary and time-lapse work I have been developing, many people have mentioned they think I am using surveillance techniques to capture my subject matter. I don’t consider that my work uses surveillance as a tactic, but I can understand that misinterpretation. In Panopticon of Joy, I undertake a tongue-in-cheek experiment that makes me realize that no matter how many cameras I put on my daughter Joy, I have no power or control, just a false sense of security.

Panopticon of Joy, 2012, Video Stills

Panopticon of Joy uses seven different cameras to document Joy’s behavior and displays the footage in an interactive split screen application. Within the application the user is able to select the camera view options and manipulate the speed as well as forward and reverse the file. The user may feel like he has control over the videos, but soon realizes that controlling the cameras speed and direction of the video is fruitless.

2.16 Interview (excerpt) with Ben Fry

Ben Fry is principal of Fathom Information Design, a design and software consultancy located in Boston. He received his doctoral degree from the Aesthetics + Computation Group at the MIT Media Lab.

James Grady: Lately, everyone seems to want all content and design on all channels, and all media. I feel that people just expect dynamics and modularity in design immediately. It does seem like common sense—scalability and modularity in design—but I was just wondering where, or how you think about that in the design process?

Ben Fry: I think part of it comes from the digital thing. It seems like when it’s digital, it can just go in all these digital formats. People are starting to talk about screens now. That it’s like, oh they’re all kind of the same as far as delivering content. Everybody from ESPN to MLB, HBO, Comcast, it’s all screens. You view it on your mobile, or your desktop, or your laptop, or through your cable box, it’s like all the same stuff. I think that’s also contributing to it, because it’s like, oh yea, it’s just the same thing, and you put it in each thing, but it’s like a director who’s like, I can’t believe you’re going to watch this thing on this tiny little device. Also it wasn’t made to do that, right? Given the chance to watch a movie or not, you’ll probably watch the movie even though it’s not optimal. You really have to rethink stuff for all those different formats.

JG: I think this a huge design challenge. If I see one more commercial where they’re like, TV, tablet, it’s all the same. But you can’t represent that same content on all devices equally. You really have to think about it for those different forms.

BF: I think it’s not just space and scale—it’s also about resolution. The difference between print and screen is so different. Now we have as of two days ago, the iPad3. That’s going to get even weirder, but the thing is like all of the pieces that matter are about how you interact with it, how it’s going to be situated. The size is the easiest thing to solve. The next step that’s scary is that people start thinking about how we can automatically design for all of these different platforms. It’s solving the wrong problem, because that’s looking at it as a layout and space problem, or layouts and scale sort of problem. Even something as simple as news articles read online; there is actually some interesting psychology about reading on mobile devices. If you have a five hundred-word article, and it’s on a screen, and you’re just reading it off of a site, that’s one way. If you give somebody the same article on a mobile device, and you fix the design and all that, and have it in nice mobile, readable format, the article, it still feels twice as long because your expectations are so different for small screen and how you interact with it. What they found is that, five hundred words on a screen feels like two hundred and fifty words on a mobile. People don’t actually realize it’s a different number of words at all. It’s all perception. The change in type size, and fixing the layout on the phone is the smallest problem. How are you going to make an article go from five hundred words to two hundred and fifty-words? How to actually make sense of that?

JG: I think that some print designers, looking to go into digital or screen-based, work are many times still translating brochures into digital assets. Space and grids and all that stuff is still considered like print but it’s not. How grids work, and how it works on different scales is something that I’m really interested in.

BF: Muriel Cooper who originally was a long-term head of design over at MIT press during some amazing years ran the visible language workshop at the media lab. She came to the media lab, that was one thing in particular that they were looking at, but they were very graphic design plus computer science heavy, and so they’re saying now how do we do graphic design with the computer? They had a lot of different experiments with how do you do automated layout in different formats, and things like that. It’s interesting background material. Also because she was a designer, she never turned it into a straight programming problem. We’re looking for the algorithm for the optimal design, and how to automate it. How do we do a mobile algorithm or an on-screen algorithm, then things like that?

JG: I’m also thinking about designing in other spaces. My wife and I bought this new car when my daughter was born. It has what seems to be a really fancy interface: GPS and all these things, but the interface is absolutely terrible. You’re driving and there are four knobs that are all the same size. One is the radio, and one is the heat, and there are two others knobs on the other side, and there’s a GPS. I’d love to redesign the user interface and ergonomics of this. It makes me think about design in terms of multi-channels. I was wondering if there was anything outside of the screen base or something that you would love to design?

BF: Certainly, stuff like that intrigues me. I think what it’s more about is the whole design process. It’s one of the more pervasive things I took from design school—the process bit. To go back further, part of the reason I was interested in design at school was that I was interested in how you problem solve. Here’s this thing that doesn’t work, and why is it not working, and how do we improve it? It’s not even so much as like you just want to fix stuff. It’s the right direction and the right way to do this. How can you think about design process to actually address that? Rethink whether it’s a system for doing something, or an actual physical thing, or what do I need the work to do here, or whatever? I think it’s that. The thing I’m trying to do, plus another human trying to do it. Trying to put that together in an artful way too. It’s not a do it to get it done thing, but do it in a way that you actually enjoy the experience. That stuff can be so subtle. If those knobs just had a little bit of texture on them or they were sized differently, it would be a subtle shift of improvement, but so important.

JG: Its functionality, design, design thinking, aesthetics and emotions. Those sorts of the components are what I’m trying to think about. It’s not just about solving the problem or making it functionally correct. There is also the emotional element to it. I think that’s what I admire about the work that goes on at Fathom. There is a connection. It’s got a feeling to it that’s different than a lot of data visualization work. I really don’t like to say data visualization when I’m explaining what Fathom does because I feel it’s much more open than that. There is so much more. That’s what I admire about the work here.

BF: I feel like there is a particular direction we’re headed with this stuff that we’re still trying to sort out. I know we’re not doing the same thing as the data visualization folks. It’s not a traditional design shop. We’re angling around that. I think it will be helpful over time to figure out ways to articulate that with people to say, yeah it’s functional, but it’s also pretty. It’s functional, but it’s not, oh it gives you happiness when you use it. There is some sort of emotion there as far as like, you have to care about it a little bit, and you have to find it beautiful, and you have to want to look at it, or use it, or think about it. I don’t know. There are probably some wonderful non-English words about how we should talk about this.

JG: I’m sure.

BF: I hate the discussion about functional versus beautiful or all these other axes that are really just tired and boring, and like really have no bearing on what you actually make. Or they have so little bearing on the actual, the success of the stuff that you make.

JG: Totally agree. I’m trying to think about where design is going in terms of what I’m seeing, and also in the things I’ve always wanted to do and how it transcends so many more things.

During the Summer of 2011, I had the privilege to intern with Ben Fry and the team at Fathom Information Design. It was a fun, creative, and intellectually stimulating experience. I look forward to the future of our relationship.