Smallest Actors

Quantum Corral

There’s an old saying (attributed to Stanislavski) that, “There are no small roles, only small actors.” (One might argue that writers do sometimes create small roles, but that’s another blog post and not really what Stranislavski was getting at. He meant actors must take any role seriously, no matter its size.)

What I have today approaches the smallest possible actor in the smallest possible role. Despite this being seven years old, I think it still holds the title of “World’s Smallest Movie” — at least until we can make one starring nucleons or quarks. (I especially like the electron banding; that’s quantum mechanics in action.)

For a Wednesday Wow, a movie starring a single atom.

I remember, back in 1989, when IBM used this technique to carefully spell out “IBM” using individual xenon atoms on a nickle substrate.

It was pretty mind-blowing to see something made with individual atoms, let alone to contemplate its making.

At the time it was kind of a big deal:

(Don’t click. Not a video!)

They’ve come a long way since then.

In 2013 they published the very short short film, A Boy and His Atom (it’s only a minute-and-a-half long).

They made it by moving atoms around on a very cold copper stage:

Which is freakin’ awesome in so many ways.

Individual. Atoms. (Actually carbon monoxide molecules, so technically two atoms, but still.)

Each frame of the movie is a careful raster scan of the copper “stage” area by a scanning tunneling microscope (STM) once the atoms have been positioned.

They use the same STM at a closer range to drag the atoms around to where they want them. The atoms stick due to atomic forces.

(Liquid helium chills the stage to keep the atoms as still as possible.)

Here’s a making-of video (runs just under five minutes):

I especially like the faint banding you see around the atoms.

Those are electron density bands caused by a quantum mechanics interaction between the electron cloud on the surface of the copper stage and the carbon atoms in the CO.

This short video explains.

I believe it is, or is related to, what’s known as quantum corral. If I’m understanding, the bands are described by Schrödinger wave-function due to the wave properties of the electrons and the atom.

Just kinda mildly awesome.

§ §

The IBM video is a type of stop-motion animation. Each frame is set up and then “photographed” — or in this case, scanned by the STM.

To create any stop-motion movie you have to think ahead and plan every single frame. It can get quite involved. Stop-motion can be almost a kind of obsession to those who are into it.

(All those great Ray Harryhausen films were stop-motion. The man was an accomplished master at it.)

It’s fairly easy to make your own. You just need a video camera capable of taking individual frames, a stable platform for it (like a tripod), lots and lots of patience, and the ability to think ahead.  A camera remote control is nice so you can keep your hands from bumping the camera and ruining the scene.

(Back in film school we did some simple stuff: animating dominoes on a card table or office objects on a desk. We didn’t have to plan much for that. One very cool effect you can try yourself is to have a friend repeatedly jump up into the air with their arms sticking out from their sides. Take a single frame each time they’re in the air. When played back, it looks like they’re flying.)


There are some fun stop-motion YouTube videos. I especially liked this one:

You’ll find more on his channel (which is pretty new; only been around a year).


I’ll leave you with another stop-motion video. In keeping with the tiny movie motif, this Oscar-nominated short is supposed to be the shortest film ever nominated.

It’s pretty good (under two minutes):

You’ll find more on their channel.

Not only can you find a lot of videos by searching for [stop motion animation] — there is apparently a sub-genre of [stop motion animation cooking videos]. I watched a bunch and… they’re kind of weird.

A lot of them are into that ASMR video stuff.

(I’m very familiar with the response, but it’s not triggered by those videos. I get it (big time) in connection with my feelings of spirituality and the numinous. I also experience it strongly with music and excellent art. I’m pretty sure there’s a connection.)

§ §

Ever since I was a film student, I’ve had this idea for a stop-motion trick I’d love to try. It wouldn’t be all that hard to pull off.

First, mount a camera on a car, as high as legally possible. The view should feel like it’s flying above the road. Next, get the camera to take frames based on the car wheels turning. For instance, one frame every revolution (or whatever works).

Then go for a drive.

At slow speed, the camera takes fewer frames. At fast speed, it takes lots. When the car stops, it takes no frames.

The final effect should be a movie of flying down the street at a constant speed. I think it would be really interesting to compare stop-and-go slow traffic versus high-speed freeway traffic.

What I really want to see is the effect of slowing down to a stop and then speeding up again. The resulting film (remember it seems to fly at constant speed), should show the world speeding up (to like infinity) as a stop approaches, and then slowing down as the car starts up again.

The only real trick is getting a signal off the car wheels. I figure a Hall effect sensor reading magnets glued to the axle. That’d provide a square-wave signal that could (through a frequency-divider and signal conditioner) drive the camera.

It’s one dream that isn’t completely dead. (I have an old video camera just gathering dust. I wonder if it has a single-frame capability…)

Stay animated, my friends!

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

One response to “Smallest Actors

And what do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: