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SYFY WIRE Oppenheimer

Why Oppenheimer's 600-Pound IMAX Edition Needs This 20-Year-Old Handheld Gadget to Run

Oppenheimer, the biggest (literally) movie of the year, requires a little help from a 20-year-old Palm Pilot.

By Matthew Jackson

Christopher Nolan's much-anticipated Oppenheimer is now in theaters, and many film fans spent the weekend screening the movie the way the filmmaker intended it. Nolan's preferred cut of the film features a massive, 11-mile 70mm film print projected onto IMAX screens in just 30 locations, so it wasn't necessarily easy to get a ticket. If you did get a ticket, though, and the projection went off without a hitch, you were treated to a cinema experience unlike any other this year, and you probably had no idea that whole process is running thanks to a 20-year-old, seemingly extinct gadget. 

Earlier this month, film fans on social media started to notice something odd about the IMAX projection booths that were primed to screen Oppenheimer, specifically the one shared to the official IMAX TikTok account. In the video below, posted almost two weeks ago, IMAX shared that they'd actually manufactured small extenders for the platters that hold reels of film for 70mm projection in order to contain the sheer size of Nolan's film print, which reportedly weighs 600 pounds. But that wasn't what people noticed. Instead, they spotted what looked like a Palm Pilot on the wall beside the projection machinery. 

Is that a Palm Pilot running Oppenheimer's 70mm IMAX film print?

@imax Constantly pushing the boundaries of film 🎞️. #Oppenheimer #ChristopherNolan #IMAX ♬ original sound - IMAX

Specifically, according to The Verge, the device in the video is actually a Palm m130 emulator running on a tablet, but other photos and videos from IMAX booths show the actual m130 devices still strapped to walls next to the platters. The m130 is, of course, not in wide circulation anymore, and dates all the way back to 2002, in the days before the iPhone when everyone was trying out new handheld smart devices. So, what is it doing there, and why did someone go to the trouble of building an emulator of the device rather than just, you know, using a new device?

RELATED: Oppenheimer Lands Explosive $80 Million Debut

The m130 is apparently in the booth to control the quick turn reel unit (QTRU) on the projector, which is the piece of hardware that makes sure the platters spin at the right speed for the film in question. In other words, it's the thing that keeps the projection smooth and keeps the audio in sync with the picture. The film starts, as you can see in the video, on one massive platter, then spools out and through the whole projector system before landing on another platter, which rolls it all back up. The m130, or the emulator version of the m130, makes sure that all happens smoothly, and according to The Verge many projectionists never interact with the device at all, only touching it if something goes wrong.

But this isn't just a case of old technology hanging around in theaters that haven't upgraded yet. IMAX told Vice in a statement that they specifically designed the emulators for theaters that didn't have the original m130 device anymore, to make sure they could still use the same software to run the QTRU, which means there was no effort to transfer the control to another device anyway. Why? Well, because the old way still works. 

That's a fitting statement when it comes to projecting on film, a process that's becoming something of a lost art, as evidenced by the very small number of theaters even equipped to screen Oppenheimer in its 70mm presentation. Projectionists who know the equipment know that much of it is decades old at this point, and that includes the QTRU and the Palm, so they stick with what works. Plus, there's not a huge market for new devices to run these machines anyway since, after all, there aren't that many of them in operation to begin with. So, if projectionists have to work with 20-year-old software to show you Oppenheimer, that's what they'll do.

Oppenheimer is in theaters now. Get tickets at Fandango.