The smallest film in the world

Surprisingly, the most talked about movie this week was not Iron Man 3, or J.J. Abrams’ latest navigation on the USS Enterprise.  In fact, it was not even made with the help of a Hollywood studio.  But it may change the way we define what constitutes cinema.

As reported by Jason Palmer of BBC News, researchers at IBM have created the world’s smallest movie, titled A Boy and His Atom, by moving single atoms on a copper surface.

A uniquely precise sort of camerawork was needed, since 1,000 of the frames of the film needed to be laid alongside each other to span a single human hair.  However, with the use of scanning tunnelling microscopy (STM) to help record at the proper magnification, the team successfully made a stop-motion animated film around 90 seconds and 242 frames in length.

As explained by Andreas Heinrich, principal investigator at IBM Research in California, US, “The tip of the needle is both our eyes and our hands: it senses the atoms to make images of where the atoms are, and then it is moved closer to the atoms to tug them along the surface to new positions”.  The chemical bonds between the atoms and the copper backdrop served to hold the “actor” (comprised of said atoms) on “set”, as he played with a “ball” (a single atom), danced and jumped on a trampoline.

It took four scientists two weeks, working 18 hours per day, to pull off this feat; a schedule that can rival any cinematic shoot.

It serves to represent something noteworthy occurring in both the cinematic and scientific communities.  Similar to efforts using CGI to change what can be presented on screen, this project symbolises the efforts of those in the laboratory to manipulate the world around them.  But instead of trying to create elfin battles or extra-terrestrial backdrops, the goal here is to manipulate matter on an atomic level – one that can potentially lead to more efficient means of storing data in the future.

But beyond the pragmatic impact, the IBM scientists seem to have a more basic goal that any filmmaker (or artist, for that matter) can relate to – entertainment value.  Says Dr. Heinrich, “This isn’t really about a particular scientific breakthrough. The movie is really a conversation-starter to get kids and other people talking about – and excited about – math, science and technology”.

Clearly, with 5-second films dotting the Internet, this piece qualifies as a work of cinema length-wise, but that leaves the question of what makes a film “art”.

It might be arguable that the size of the film was the sole “gimmick” in this scenario, with the content not deemed essential, and that it thus is uncertain whether this film holds true artistic merit (or if it simply a demonstrative tool).  But even if unknown by the creator, every piece is fuelled by motivations; and the incentive to try pulling others to the “craft”, albeit one that uses a different canvas, seems worthy of any artistic field.

And while this film is unable to rake in millions at the box office, it has earned a certain degree of recognition that has eluded even the most famous film studios: official certification from the Guinness Book of World Records.  For a film that cannot be seen by the naked eye, it’s quite a sight to behold.


PHOTOS// Courtesy of IBM Research