Imagine I’m your 10-year-old nephew, and repeat that again.”That’s what Ryan Blank, Group Creative Director for IBM, says he kept telling the scientists he met with repeatedly last year. Along with several of his Ogilvy & Mather colleagues, Blank went on scouting expeditions at an IBM research facility in Yorktown, New York, in search of cool stuff to highlight in “Designed to Be Shared,” a new initiative of IBM’s ongoing five-year-old “Smarter Planet” campaign.
The O&M team’s mission: to produce short videos about some rather awesome IBM technology. And they wanted these videos to reach not just business leaders, as IBM’s newspaper “op-ads” are geared to do, but the public at large: people—especially students interested in science—who may not have ibm.com bookmarked on their browsers, but who might be inspired to share a fascinating video they’ve stumbled upon through a social channel like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter or Tumblr. (Both the videos and the IBM “Think” campaign’s think x20 poster series appear on the IBMblr, updated daily to showcase IBM innovation. Several think x20 posters appear on the following pages.)
Blank remembers the moment when everything fell into place. “One of the scientists told us about how with current technology, in order to store one bit of information, we need about a million atoms in an array to hold that piece of information inside a transistor,” he says. “But IBM researchers managed to get that down from a million to 12. They’ve figured out a way to get 12 atoms stable enough that that array of 12 atoms can store a piece of information reliably.
“And that’s shocking. That’s a major breakthrough,” Blank says. Imagine if your smartphone or computer could hold roughly 80,000 times as much media and data as it does today.Blank and his colleagues thought about how to make that story, of IBM’s unprecedented control over atoms, accessible to nonscientists. During one visit to Yorktown, O&M’s team learned that an IBM team in 1989 had spelled out “IBM” with 35 individual atoms, just to see if they could. If it was possible to “draw” a single image with 35 atoms, what about entire series of images? Could IBM move enough atoms—say, a few thousand—to make a little stop-motion movie?
And thus A Boy And His Atom was born. Art would meet science—and artists would meet scientists—to shoot what Blank calls “a story about a boy named Adam and a very, very, very small friend named Atom. They meet, dance, fall in love and explore the world around them.
”The O&M team enlisted New York digital production studio 1st Ave Machine to work with another IBM research facility—this one across the country in San Jose, California—to generate nearly 250 individual frames, each comprised of atoms manipulated with what’s called a scanning tunneling microscope. (That microscope, a room-sized piece of equipment, earnedits creators, IBM scientists Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer, the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physics.) Ultimately, more than 5,000 atoms were moved by IBM’s Andreas Heinrich and his team at IBM’s Almaden Research Center in San Jose.Pulling together an actual film from those 5,000 atoms and 250 frames involved a lot of trial and error. “We wanted to find a studio that would be willing to jump in the water with us when we didn’t know exactly how it was going to play out,” O&M producer Alicia Zuluaga says of partnering with 1st Ave Machine. “We knew we were going to be learning a lot along the way, and needed a versatile partner who was okay with that.”“It was truly an experimental little film—only we didn’t really get to experiment beforehand,” she adds. “Moving individual atoms is very tedious, and the IBM scientists had a lot of them to move. But they never seemed to lose their sense of excitement and wonder at what they were doing.
”And they pulled it off. In February, A Boy And His Atom was awarded a Guinness World Record for World’s Smallest Stop-Motion Film. The film launched to the public on the website of the Tribeca Film Festival and has since been screened at Disney’s Epcot Center—and, crucially, streamed to 2,500 students at more than 60 schools in seven states. (As IBM’s Heinrich says in Moving Atoms, the “making of” film for A Boy And His Atom: “If I can get a thousand kids to join science rather than go into law school, I’d be super happy.”)“One of the really exciting things about IBM is their desire to explore new and different communication channels,” says Magnus Blair, O&M’s Planning director on “Smarter Planet.” “They’re diverting a steadily increasing percentage of budget over to what they call brand application projects, where the task is essentially to get visibility.”
A Boy And His Atom definitely met that objective quickly. Within 24 hours of its April 30 debut on YouTube, the world’s smallest film had racked up a million views. To date, 4.5 million views are logged on IBM’s YouTube channel—and that doesn’t include countless additional views via reposts across the web, encouraged by a barrage of media coverage around the world.“Leveraging some of our breakthrough research projects in our communications is a great way to expose a very broad audience to IBM,” says Ann Rubin, IBM’s VP of brand expression and global advertising. “It’s an audience that otherwise might not have an opportunity to engage with our brand.”