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Atomic Theater: Watch the Tiniest Movie Of All Time

IBM’s research department has just released a stop-motion movie created by rearranging molecules. (No atoms were hurt in the making of this movie.)

Filmmakers like Michael Bay are usually interested only in going bigger—trying to top themselves with set pieces and spectacles that succeed through excess. In the technology space, however, there is a constant race to make things smaller. The first computers each filled up an entire room, the first cell phones were the size of cinder blocks, and even iPads have already shrunk. Perhaps that explains why, when a bunch of scientists decided to make a movie, it was literally the tiniest movie of all time.

The research division at IBM and agency Ogilvy New York have just released a stop-motion movie in which the main character, a stick figure, is only a few atoms large. A Boy and His Atom is about a wee fellow who befriends one of his own. Together, they take part in a multitude of activities that one doesn’t often see at the molecular level, including trampoline-play. Guinness World Records has certified it as the smallest stop-motion film ever made (a title we believe was formerly held by Nokia’s Dot).

While it may not be the most cerebral movie you’ve ever watched, the process behind it as undeniably ingenious. The team at IBM Research reconfigured atoms to create 242 discrete frames, which they stitched together to create A Boy and His Atom. The character is actually made of individual carbon monoxide molecules sitting on a copper surface. With a 2-ton scanning-tunneling microscope, the team blew up the atoms’ surfaces more than 100 million times. They’d move molecules around using heat, pressure, and an extremely sharp needle; record the image; and then arrange another one—like any other stop-motion film. Except smaller.

It’s less a victory for cinema, though, than it is for science. Manipulating individual atoms may hold the key to the future of computing and data storage. If scientists can work at that level, after all, the world’s first atomic iPhone guts can’t be far behind.

Watch a making-of video below.

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