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Filmmaking at the atomic level? IBM nets Guinness world record

With "A Boy and His Atom," Big Blue and its scanning tunneling microscope have made what is surely the first movie explicitly starring atoms.

If you're looking to attract attention, setting a Guinness World Record is probably a good way to start.

That was the goal -- attracting attention, that is -- for a group of IBM Research scientists who recently set out to make what turned out be the Guinness World Record-certified smallest stop-motion film ever.

Called "A Boy and His Atom," the animated film features a small boy having a good old time as he bounces around, playing catch, and dancing. The twist? The film was shot at the atomic level and features 130 atoms that were painstakingly placed, atom by atom, as the researchers shot 250 individual frames. The images were created at a temperature of negative 268 degrees Celsius and were magnified 100 million times.

Not everyone has the equipment to pull off something like this. But principal investigator Andreas Heinrich and his colleagues at IBM Research in Almaden, Calif., do. They used IBM's scanning tunneling microscope, which won researchers Heinrich Rohrer and Gerd Binnig a Nobel Prize in physics in 1986, to manipulate the atoms, moving them around with an extremely sharp needle placed just a nanometer (a billionth of a meter) above a copper surface.

A frame from IBM's film, 'A boy and his atom,' which was made at the atomic level. IBM Research

Though the scanning tunneling microscope is a very serious piece of scientific equipment, used for things like proving that a digital bit can be stored in as little as 12 atoms, Heinrich told CNET that the purpose behind "A Boy and His Atom" was very simple: boost interest in and excitement about science and technology. "If we make a movie, we can approach a much wider audience," Heinrich said. "Our interest is in getting people interested in science....We just need to find a way to talk to people about why we do stuff, and what we do."

Heinrich said that four researchers spent nine 18-hour days moving the 130 atoms around so they could create the exact imagery they needed for their film. At the end, they had 250 images, which they turned over to an animator, who made the final product.

A hailing frequency for 'Star Trek'
While they were working on making the world's smallest stop-motion film, the IBM researchers also took the time to get in on a little "Star Trek" fun.

They created a series of "Star Trek" shots, also shot at the atomic level, that will be incorporated into the iOS and Android versions of the "Star Trek Into Darkness" app that will accompany the forthcoming J.J. Abrams film.

The IBM researchers also created imagery that will be included in the mobile app for the new J.J. Abrams film, 'Star Trek Into Darkness.' IBM Research