China Girls / Leader Ladies

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Here’s our collection of from-the-rewind-bench snapshots of “China Girls” (or “Leader Ladies,” as we’ve heard at least one person call them) – the photographs of (most often) women that sometimes appear in the countdown that begins every reel of motion picture film meant for exhibition, often accompanied by color bars. Their images were used by film lab workers setting color timing or black and white density – and they were often film lab workers themselves.

The origin of the term “China Girl” is debated, but theories abound. One popular theory connects the term to a “Chinese-style” garment (most often a colorful shirt) worn by the model in some test frames. Another suggests that early test frames used porcelain (“china”) mannequins instead of live women. Regardless of origin, “china girl” is by far the most common American term for them. (Others recorded include “lady wedge”, “china doll”, “girl head”, and “leader lady”). In France, they’re called “Lili,” perhaps after the traditional name of the slate used in Technicolor shoots.

Whatever you call them, their presence on the film (secretly sharing space with Hollywood’s starlets) is a fleeting visual document of the film industry’s vast off-screen labor pool. They remind us that every film made on film stock has a physical history, that each print we encounter in the projection booth, or projected onto the screen from the audience (or reproduced digitally on a laptop screen) passed through the hands of lab workers and technicians before it came to us. (In fact, the creator of the successor of the traditional China Girl, the “LAD Girl” – pictured below – won an Oscar in 2001 for his work. His acceptance speech can be seen here, and an excerpt can be read at the very bottom of this page).

The most substantial study of “China Girls” that we know of was assembled by Julie Buck and Karin Segal at the Harvard Film Archive in 2006. Write-ups of their exhibition of frame restorations can be read here or here. They also used their work to assemble a wonderful short subject called “Girls on Film“. A similar French exhibition in 2009 also produced a short subject, which included some stunning examples we have never seen on this side of the Atlantic.

Here is a diagram of typical film head leader. “China Girls” usually appear somewhere between the “10” and the “3” shown in the countdown below (though they appear elsewhere as well).

R. F. Hall


 

Have your highlights lost their sparkle?
And the midtones lost their scale?
Are your shadows going smokey?
And the colors turning stale?
Have you lost a little business to labs whose pictures shine?
Because to do it right – takes a lot of time.
Well, here’s  a brand new system. It’s simple as can be!
Its name is LAD – an acronym for Laboratory Aim Density.
– John P. Pytlak