Branded content focus: IBM, Ogilvy’s atomic entertainment

Ahead of tomorrow's BCON Expo event in New York, realscreen presents the concluding installment of its branded content case studies, examining IBM's partnership with Ogilvy for A Boy and His Atom.
October 29, 2013

Ahead of tomorrow’s BCON Expo event in New York, realscreen presents the concluding installment of its branded content case studies, examining IBM’s partnership with Ogilvy for A Boy and His Atom.

IBM may no longer be in the personal computer business, but the tech giant is still competing for the world’s top scientific, engineering and research minds with companies such as Google and Facebook.

To make people aware of IBM Research Lab’s innovations and also change some outdated perceptions of the brand, the company turned to its Madison Avenue creative agency Ogilvy, which dispatched a team of its creatives to meet with researchers working on an array of projects with potentially wide-ranging implications for the future.

Drawn to the field of atomic storage after seeing pictures of IBM’s 12-atom circuit, the creative directors came up with an idea to create a stop-motion film, by animating atoms much in the same way that the scientists move atoms as part of their work.

With the atom being one of the smallest particles in the universe, it takes roughly one million of them to store a single bit of data on a computer or electronic device, but IBM Research has figured out a way to store the same bit of information in 12 atoms.

“We thought it would be interesting to take people behind the scenes and explain the storage story that led to this movie, show people how you actually move an atom, and how they’re able to magnify it 100 million times,” explains Niels West, a creative director at Ogilvy.

Billed as “the world’s smallest movie,” A Boy and His Atom is a rudimentary stop-motion short film inspired by French filmmaker Albert Lamorisse’s wordless 1956 fantasy, The Red Balloon. In an accompanying documentary short, the research team, led by principal investigator Andreas Heinrich, explains the science behind it.

As one might expect, animating atoms is not easy. Ogilvy turned to New York-based production company 1st Avenue Machine and director Nico Casavecchia to helm the short and accompanying making-of doc.

“The challenge was to create a really economical character that was able to express emotion and movement at the same time without having to move that many atoms,” explains West.

Animating atoms is not like animating pixels: the IBM scientists move atoms on a hexagonal grid as opposed to a vertical-horizontal one. An artist storyboarded each frame, which the scientific team then recreated on one of two scanning tunneling microscopes in their lab. Where possible, the producers looped repetitive frames to save time (and atomic energy). Out of 1,400 frames in the finished film, the scientists created around 380.

The production took just over two weeks with the scientists trading off shifts throughout 14-hour days. “One of them also worked Super Bowl Sunday,” says West. “They were that excited about it.

“I didn’t know what to expect when we knew we were going to work with scientists,” he adds. “It was surprisingly quite easy. They are creating the future so they have to have creative minds to do what they do. There are no rules so their minds were very open to the process. We worked really well together.”

The challenge in producing the behind-the-scenes documentary – also directed by Casavecchia – was distilling hours of interviews and footage into an engaging, easily understandable account of the process that IBM could send to school classrooms across the U.S. to stir interest in science among students, and subsequently, the brand.

Ogilvy is now working with Heinrich to create a mobile app that will allow students to move the atomic microscope and create a crowdsourced movie. As with A Boy and His Atom, that process requires a deeper collaboration between filmmaker, agency and brand than a typical commercial.

“It wasn’t that we came up with an idea and then we made it,” says West. “We came up with an idea but IBM had to make it for us. Without the excitement of the scientists, this never would have happened.”

  • ┬áThe one-day, realscreen-presented BCON Expo event takes place at Convene in New York tomorrow (October 30). For more details, visit
  • This feature originally appeared in the current September/October issue of realscreen magazine. Not a subscriber? Click here for more information.
realscreen magazine - september/october 2013


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