How IBM Turned Its Scientists Into Atomic Moviemakers

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Thanks to a recent campaign out of Ogilvy and Mather North America, IBM's scientists can now add another skillset to their CVs: animation. The brand just debuted what it bills to be "The World's Smallest" film, about a boy named Adam and his pet atom -- which, it turns out, was made entirely out of atoms. Sure, everything is built from those basic bits of matter, but with the brainpower of IBM researchers and a high-powered microscope, IBM literally zooms in on carbon monoxide molecules and uses them as pixels in a dot-matrix-style short.

Outside of the charming story, the film also is a starting point for telling the bigger brand tale about how IBM's technology is impacting consumers' everyday lives, said Ann Rubin, VP/Branded Content and Global Creative at IBM. The technology that the scientists used to make the film is what also helps them compress data into ever-shrinking forms of storage -- the kind that will ultimately allow you to carry around not just a few films on your mobile device, but the entire archive of movies ever made.

Before coming up with the campaign, "we spent time with the researchers at our labs and asked them, 'Give us a data dump on the interesting things,'" said Ms. Rubin. After the field trip, Ogilvy's creative team came back with several ideas about how to use IBM technology to amplify the brand and "position those innovations in a way that's intriguing and relevant," she said. One of those ideas centered on the concept of atomic memory.

"The scientists talked about IBM's dexterity in moving atoms, and they actually spelled out IBM in atoms years ago," said Ogilvy Creative Director Mike Hahn. The team initially considered the idea of creating an animated gif -- "Could we get one of the scientists to build 8 or 10 frames that we could loop into the world's smallest cartoons? We got on the phone with one of the scientists and he said he could move up to 5000 atoms"-- which meant something potentially longer than just a gif.

The agency also tapped production company 1st Avenue Machine as a creative partner. Mr. Hahn said the limitations of the project required the talent of an experienced animator who could "create economies inside the animation and move the least amount of atoms to tell the most amount of story." 1stAve director Nico Casavecchia served in that role and helped to create animatics that laid out, atom by atom, how the story would unfold. The storyboards were translated into grids then handed off to the scientists to replicate.

Nerdiest Project Ever
"It was hardcore, the nerdiest project I've ever participated in," said Mr. Casavecchia. "It was an amazing process from a technical standpoint, but the limitations were the most interesting thing about it." He said the main obstacles were coming up with a "common language" between the creative teams and the scientist -- as well as the 5000 atom maximum. "Each movement of an atom in each frame would count as one process,'" he said. "That adds up pretty quickly."

But perhaps the most peculiar snafu was the IBM researchers' "retro-futuristic" technology. "They had lots of high tech equipment around the project, but the actual technology moving the atoms was like a really old vintage computer that used floppy discs," said Mr. Casavecchia. "It was like vintage and hi-tech at the same time, but to change that would have meant restructuring everything." As a result, the scientists were unable to work with the initial animatics, so "we had to come up with a system to write software they could use to translate the animatic to something they could use as reference," he said.

On the story itself, "We wanted to go with something simple and childlike," said Mr. Hahn. "A bunch of us were sitting around on a Friday night, talking about different scenarios, a character you feel empathy for. We all went back to the original animations we grew up on." Added Associate Creative Director Niels West, "Something we kept seeing was 'The Red Balloon.' It's such a simple story."

Turning Scientists Into Animators
As adorable as Adam and his atom are, the most endearing characters of the campaign are the scientists themselves, whose passion about the project is evident in a series of behind the scenes videos on IBM's YouTube channel. An especially moving moment is when IBM Research Principal Investigator Andreas Heinrich considers the impact of the project. "If I can. . . get a thousand kids to join science, rather than go to law school, I'd be super happy," he said.

"Turning scientists into animators was really key to the project," said Hahn. "The guys in the lab are the heroes. They rolled their sleeves up and went for it." The researchers worked two weeks straight on the project -- all while making their progress on their day jobs--which meant working nights, weekends -- and for some, through the Super Bowl, said Mr. Hahn.

A Point to the Simplicity
"A Boy and His Atom" is just the intro to a host of activities addressing a broad demographic range -- from kids to tech geeks to film buffs. "For a lot of our work, we create a very integrated paid/earned/owned media plan to make sure the word is spread to many different types of audiences," said Ms. Rubin. The campaign also includes a tie-in with the upcoming Star Trek film -- an "atomic" image of the franchise logo similar to the one IBM created for itself years ago.

There are infographics drilling down into the science behind the project, as well as an educational program for children and "Atomic Shorts," more online films detailing the technology geared toward scientists and tech geeks.

Strategically speaking, the tiny tale is akin to what IBM has been doing all along -- making geeky tech digestible -- and fun -- for the masses, like a previous effort in which IBM's A.I. super computer Watson competed in a game of Jeopardy. "We want to make IBM accessible to a broader audience said Ms. Rubin. "We impact everyone's lives, from food to healthcare, but people don't always understand that."

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