In a digital world, it can be difficult to understand the hype around movies released in 70 millimeter. The impact of raw, uncompressed moving image gets lost in translation on our devices, exchanged for the convenience of a play button. These days, even when you make the effort to go to a movie theater, you're likely paying to let someone else essentially press a play button for you.

But when you see a projectionist-run film at a place like the Somerville Theatre, you're not just watching a movie, you're experiencing a live performance.

"When 70 millimeter screenings are coming, I have to, like, pump myself up," said Adrianne Jorge, a movie and film projectionist for the Somerville Theatre in Davis Square.

Built in 1914, the Somerville was originally designed for vaudeville, stage shows and a new spectacle called "motion pictures." These days, it’s also one of only a few dozen places in the country where films like "Oppenheimer" can be seen on 70 millimeter film.

"This is a crank to adjust the masking," Jorge explained in the projection booth. "And if you have shows that have different aspect ratios, the image is a different width or height from one show to the next, you have to sneak back here between shows."

Filmmakers like Christopher Nolan have been re-popularizing the 70 millimeter movie experience, but the projectionists trained to operate the unruly accompanying equipment are few and far between. With thirty years under her belt, Jorge is one of those rare pros.

Jorge learned the art while she was a film student at Mass Art and working at the Coolidge Corner Theatre.

A large film sits on top of projection equipment in an industrial looking room.
The projection booth at the Somerville Theatre.
Courtesy of the Somerville Theatre

"There were no other women that I knew doing it. So of course I wanted to do it," she said. "And I was 19 when that happened. And so yeah, I guess I haven't left the booth. I've been all over the world doing it, but I haven't left the booth."

Even for experts like Jorge, successfully projecting a 70 millimeter film is no small feat. "It's nerve wracking. Even now, years in, I still treat every reel like that first one. I check my thread multiple times. That's what has made me successful for so long. It's like, I reserve my OCD anxiety for running 70 millimeter," she said.

David Kornfeld, head projectionist at the Somerville Theatre, says it's a unlike any other type of film. "You have no idea how unforgiving 70 millimeter is," he said. "70 is kind of my thing. I really like 70, but running that stuff successfully is a hard won skill. It's not something you're going to learn in a night course or in a day."

Its sheer size is what makes 70 millimeter different from other film formats. That number, 70 millimeters, refers to the film’s gauge, or width. According to Kornfeld, the reason to use such large film is about picture size.

"It has to do with the larger format having less magnification on the screen," he said. "If you blow a small gauge film up to a huge screen, you'll see its deficit. The larger the film, the less the magnification. The tighter the grain, the greater the detail."

The payoff is an image quality at a massive scale that can far outpace other formats — even extremely high resolution digital ones. But that larger size also makes projecting 70 mm much, much harder. To understand why, Jorge says it's helpful to think of film as a ribbon.

"Okay, I mean, it's more than a ribbon, but imagine a very delicate ribbon of plastic. 5,000 feet of it is spooled onto a reel, and you have to run five reels of 5,000 feet of that ribbon over and over and over and over again for the whole run of the movie," she said. "Now, as I said, with 70 millimeter, the finest detail can be seen on screen. That includes dust and scratches. It really doesn't take much to scratch a print. So if you go see a film here a week or two into its run and it still looks perfect, it's because that ribbon has been loved."

70 mm movies arrive at theaters on enormous 50-pound reels the size of car tires. A screening of "Oppenheimer" requires five of those reels and two projectors. Jorge has developed her own system to cope: "I put it on the floor. I take a deep breath. I might do a quick stretch, then I lift it up and I rest it on my thighs for a second so I can catch my breath. And then I lift it up a few inches up to my belt so that my belt is like a shelf and it is resting on my abdomen, and I'm leaning back a little, and then I literally think of things that make me really angry, because it gives me the energy to lift it up."

When you see it all in focus, it gives you this sense of hyper realism that you're not used to seeing.
-David Kornfeld, head projectionist at the Somerville Theatre

On a typical night with two screenings, Jorge will have changed 10 reels, and lifted a total of 500 pounds above her head. But there's more to it.

"Putting the film in the machine is the last step in a long process," said Kornfeld. "Machines have to be adjusted and taken care of. The film has to be inspected. Any damage or problems that may show up have to be addressed. The sound has to be checked, the light has to be checked. There's a whole long list of stuff you got to do. And the final step is putting the film in the projector and hitting on. And then it's like hitting a bomb, because if you've done anything wrong, it's going to blow up."

All that effort behind the scenes is worth it for Jorge and Kornfeld. They say, unequivocally, that when shot, printed and projected well, at a venue with a good sound system, there is simply no match for a 70mm film.

"You see everything when it's done well. Everything is more than you can see with your eyes. Your eyes can only focus in one spot at any given instance in real life. But when you see it all in focus, it gives you this sense of hyper realism that you're not used to seeing," Kornfeld said.

Kornfeld and Jorge say there's no better time than now, and perhaps no better city than Boston, to experience 70 mm.

"We pack a punch here," said Jorge. "We have the Somerville Theatre, the Coolidge Corner Theatre, the Brattle, the Harvard Film Archives. ... If you want to go see a movie on film, you've got options in this town."

And if you do catch one of these screenings, take a moment on your way out, glance up at the window near the top of the back of the theater, and say a quiet thanks to whatever master of this unique craft just finished their latest live performance.

If you would like to catch a current 70 millimeter screening around Greater Boston, "Dune: Part 2" is showing at both the Somerville Theatre and Coolidge Corner Theatre through Thursday, March 14th. And keep a look out for the return of Somerville Theatre's annual 70mm & WideScreen Festival which will return at the end of May. This year's theme focuses on the big screen movies from MGM and Columbia, both of which are celebrating their centennials this year. Tickets will go on sale in April.