A BOY AND HIS ATOM : The World’s Smallest Movie

It’s the smallest film in the world, that’s for sure, because the protagonists of “A Boy and His Atom” are atoms. Thousands of atoms, placed with precision to create nearly 250 frames taken with the stop motion technique. The short tells the story of a human being called – guess how? – Atom, who is befriended by a single atom; together they dance, play ball and jump on a trampoline. The project was implemented in IBM labs with a scanning tunneling microscope invented by IBM itself (the instrument made Big Blue win the Nobel Prize, for the record). “The microscope – says Christopher Lutz, Research Scientist, IBM Research – weighs two tons, operates at a temperature of minus 268 Celsius degrees and enlarges the surface of the atom more than 100 million times. The ability to control accurately temperature, pressure and vibration makes our IBM Research Lab one of the few places in the world where you can move atoms with such precision. “ IBM researchers used the microscope, remote controlled from a computer, to move a needle on a copper surface and “feel” the atoms. Just one nanometer from the surface, which is equivalent to a distance of one billionth of a meter, the needle can physically attract the atoms and molecules to the surface and then place them in a specific point. The “drag” of an atom produces a characteristic sound that provides essential feedback to determine the extent of the displacement. During the making of the film, scientists took still images made of atoms arranged individually, producing 242 frames. “This film is a fun way to share the world on an atomic scale, opening a dialogue with students and other stakeholders about the new frontiers of science and mathematics,” says Andreas Heinrich, Principal Investigator, IBM Research. The agency Ogilvy & Mather and Nico Casavecchia, argentine director owner of the production company 1st Avenue Machine in New York, have been called to help the scientists whith the narrative part of the movie. “After hours of meetings – says Casavecchia – we began to realize the potential and limitations of the microscope. For example, we realized that we could not overcome five movements of individual atoms, so we had to create a script that would reduce to a minimum the number of operations per frame. From here we started to build a workable story, which could be understood by any culture, without the need of words, and that would convey emotions. We had to tell something with a few pixels and only one color: that’s why we started to study the video games of the eighties, even if the atoms – we learned – can not be aligned at right angles as the pixels, but only in a hexagon. We had to take that into account too. “ Made the storyboard, began a collaborative process to translate it into a language the computer that controls the microscope could understand. Finished the “shooting” made by the scientists, Casavecchia made the assembly. And here’s A Boy and His Atom, the world’s smallest film.