Rocky Morphology at 5
Roughly five years ago, James Grady, a designer at Fathom, settled down on his couch to watch a movie. It wasn’t just any movie, but James isn’t just any movie fan. Inspired by Morphology of the Folktale by Vladimir Propp, which lays out the patterns typical to stories that inform our culture, he wanted to see how the structure played out across all six Rocky movies. James got his spreadsheet ready, prepared snacks and drinks to see him through, and pressed Play.

The movie was Rocky, and James was determined to find the narrative arc that lies behind it. He tabulated every fight scene, every training sequence, the dialog, the credits. Every montage. After categorizing every scene down to the second, he did it again the next night with Rocky II. And again with Rocky III. Rocky IV. V. And a sixth called “Rocky Balboa”. (That’s all the Rocky movies there were in 2013. Providence has since brought us two more, and a musical to boot.)

A sample of the data James tabulated for the Rocky Morphology

Armed with this data, James brought a vision to the office. Through the power of information design, could we distill his labors into a tool to help the world understand just what goes into a Rocky movie? The office responded, and—once we stopped laughing—said “Yes.”

We hadn’t realized what he’d been up to that week—he’d mentioned an interest in it, but typically for this sort of situation, we’d have constructed a tool to handle assembling annotations rather than leaving him to the unmerciful and barren wasteland of an empty Excel spreadsheet.

The initial joke had been that all the Rocky films follow such a predefined narrative path that we’d be able to line them up and see them correlate in near frame-by-frame sequence. A quick Processing sketch showed that it wasn’t quite that simple:

At the left, the first five movies, minute-by-minute. Close-up version on the right.

We had shrugged this off a bit, but for James, this was the cue to begin his week of Evenings with Excel. Once he returned with the completed spreadsheet in hand, the rest of the office pitched in on what would become Rocky Morphology. As a result of our efforts, we squeezed six action packed movies — more than ten hours and thirty two minutes of viewing time — into one web page.

Seeing the movies stacked next to each other was one thing, but to fully appreciate the complex narrative behind these films, we had to make it interactive. We made it possible to look at how much time was spent on montage, fights, credits, etc., and see what happens during those parts of the film. By playing around, you can get a feel for the ratio of dialog to montage, probably the most reliable indicator for the quality of a Rocky movie. Try the final piece to see more of James’s insights, and to see for yourself.

Quick Demo of Rocky Morphology

We knew there were a lot of Rocky fans out there, but we weren’t quite prepared for the responses.

Or just how strongly people feel about comparing one Rocky film versus the others. (This was a missed opportunity for a more interesting interaction with the piece—to allow people to vote or otherwise weigh in on such an important issue.)

It’s important to note that we don’t take sides in this debate. We’re just here to make sense of the data so that you can make clear-headed decisions about the critical issues. It’s analytics and decision support systems all the way down.

On release, there were even accusations that our piece was a viral marketing campaign for Rocky the Musical, which was arrived at the same time. Sadly, we were not paid, and we weren’t even offered tickets for the musical. We brought this on ourselves.

So to celebrate the release of Creed 2 on November 21 (the anniversary of the original Rocky release in 1976) we decided it was time for this writeup, and to use the opportunity to update the piece for mobile.


We’d love to hear what you’re working on, what you’re intrigued by, and what messy data problems we can help you solve. Find us on the web, drop us a line at hello@fathom.info, or subscribe to our newsletter.