Big Screen Meets Big Data: How Movies Are Bigger (and Smaller) Than Ever

Over the past few years, Hollywood's major film studios have increasingly focused their movie slates on a select number of tent-pole productions. These big budget storylines have dominated the box office with award-winning casts, massive sets and mind-bending digital effects.

The common theme is "the bigger the better." "Avatar," "Star Wars" and "Titanic" have grossed approximately $2 billion in U.S. box office receipts.

Given that the movie industry is now digital, many of today's biggest productions are generating big data. "Avatar" was equal to 17.28 gigabytes per minute of storage. Meanwhile, "Despicable Me" in 3D generated 142 terabytes of data -- equivalent to the online traffic created by 50 million three-minute MP3 songs.

It takes significant resources to tell these stories and to manage all this data through the production and distribution process. Now media and entertainment organizations must not only hit the mark with their audience, they must address the challenge of deriving value from all this data plus the technology, power and space required to process and store it.

As a result, just as we look forward to the next compelling "Star Trek" movie and new adventures in outer space, a new frontier is emerging: inner space. IBM scientists have turned the problem on itself, tackling one of the world's largest big data challenges in the smallest way -- one atom at a time. In fact, the folks at Guinness World Records have certified the movie as the "World's Smallest Stop-Motion Film."

Here's the backstory: In 2012, IBM scientists created the world's smallest magnetic bit using a breakthrough technique to store a single bit of information with just 12 atoms. One MP3 song file is made up of about 20 million bits. So, imagine the savings if that process was used in a full-length film.

To help explain this atomic world, the same team of scientists has now produced the world's smallest film called "A Boy and His Atom," which tells the story of a boy who becomes friends with a wayward atom. Using a high-powered microscope, the team moved thousands of atoms to precise locations on a surface the size of a penny to make this movie. The atoms were magnified 100 million times and were cooled down to -260 degrees Celsius or -450 Fahrenheit to keep them stable.

Going beyond this display of science and entertainment, IBM is now teleporting Trekkies into this new frontier, offering "Star Trek" fans a look through an atomic lens. Using this same scientific equipment and techniques used to make "A Boy and His Atom," IBM scientists used atoms to make images of the USS Enterprise, the Star Trek logo and the "live long and prosper" sign. They can be seen in the "Star Trek Into Darkness" app here.

There is no doubt that big-budget movies and Big Data are here to stay. Now it's a matter of uniting R&D, media and entertainment organizations, industry experts, consumers, and technology manufacturers to uncover the best ways to derive value from all this data. "The Boy and His Atom" tells the story of how we're pushing science at the atomic level to tackle these challenges and to extend human capabilities.

To learn more about R&D, click here.