Projectionists and lab folk have long loved the ladies (and occasional gentlemen) who appear in most films, but are seldom seen onscreen. Even when they are, they are only there for a split second, as usually they are printed in 4 frames (24 frames per second).
Leader Ladies (more widely known as China Girls), have been used since at least the 1920s in color or density test frames made by labs to assure standardization of print quality. In the image above, you’ll see the greyscale at the bottom of the frame. Lab QC uses the greyscale to check the quality of their prints.
Most films used a standardized leader lady, Kodak’s LAD, but as you can see from our pictures and from others posted, there is quite a variety out there.
When I was a projectionist (ca. 1993-2003), my fellow projectionists and I collected these ladies, sometimes only one frame, from 35mm prints we showed. We planned to make a film of them, but never quite got it together. (We had never, by the way, heard the term China Girl, and when we did, assumed it was some Asian-lady fetishistic thing, which didn’t really add up considering the few Asian faces in these test frames.)
Back in 2005, the HFA’s former Film Conservators, Julie Buck and Karin Segal, made GIRLS ON FILM, an experimental film utilizing these lovely leader ladies.
You have perhaps seen them in the end credits (skip ahead to 2:25) of Tarentino’s brilliant GRINDHOUSE (leave it to Tarentino to put these faces on the BIG screen!). After this film came out, we got a phone call from someone in the UK whose mother’s face appeared. He was pretty thrilled! There’s also a French film collage online, also using Chick Habit as the soundtrack!
Leader Ladies are all the rage these days among archivists. Our friends at Northwest Chicago Film Society have been doing the best work with these gals, but others have delved into their world.
My favorites were always these weird 90s ones that look like Thunderbirds mannequins.
We are posting pix of Leader Ladies when we find good ones. Keep your eyes on our flickr album!