Thursday, March 09, 2017

China Girls On Film

Who Are the Mystery Girls?: Celebrating Countdown Reel Girls


Countdown to Ecstasy: China Girl on film leader

One of the thrills of being an audio-visual librarian at Enoch Pratt Free Library is working with 16mm films and spotting the occasional "China Girl" (or "LAD Lady," short for the "Laboratory Aim Density" industry standard created by Kodak's John P. Pytlak) on film countdown leaders. How these women got the sobriquet "China Girls" remains unknown; it's particularly unusual since most of the female subjects were white, not Asian. ("China Girls" might be a reference to the colorful flower print blouses Chinese girls wore at the turn of the 20th century, or to the "Shanghai Girls" advertising cards that came with Chinese cigarettes.) Needless to say, the term has nothing to do with the David Bowie (or Iggy Pop) song "China Girl."

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

A recent article by Sarah Laskow ("The Forgotten 'China Girls' Hidden At the Beginning of Old Films," January 17, 2017) for the wonderful Atlas Obscura blog profiled these hidden faces that were never meant to be public and renewed my long-standing fascination with them. As Laskow writes:

Few people ever saw the images of China girls, although for decades they were ubiquitous in movie theaters. At the beginning of a reel of film, there would be a few frames of a woman's head. She might be dressed up; she might be scowling at the camera. She might blink or move her head. 
But if audiences saw her, it was only because there had been a mistake. These frames weren't meant for public consumption. The China girl was there to assist the lab technicians processing the film. Even though the same person's face might show up in reel after reel of film, her image would remain unknown to everyone except the technicians and projectionists. 
For many years photo labs would produce unique China girl images; around a couple hundred women, perhaps more, had their images hidden at the beginning of films. As movies have transitioned from analog to digital, though, China girls are disappearing.


Who are the Mystery Girls?

But not in Rockville, Maryland, where Colorlab is not only one of the last full-service film labs operating in the country, but has also revived the practice of making in-house China girls because there's no standardized "LAD lady" for the newest version of Kodak film.

And now there's renewed interest in these mystery women thanks to Rebecca Lyon and the Chicago Film Society's Leader Ladies Project, which has collected and posted around 200 China girl images (including  rare ones showing men, mannequins and even people of color). Below is a picture from the Leader Ladies Project collection that actually shows an Asian woman in the film leader for Nagisa Oshima's 1968 film Death By Hanging. (Since it's a Japanese film, she's probably not literally a "China girl," but close enough!)

"Death By Hanging"'s Leader Lady

Then there's the 2008 short film by Julie Buck and Karin Segal called Girls On Film that reflects on the anonymity of the test subjects by using an old "making it in Hollywood" movie soundtrack.




Buck and Segal described their film as follows:
Girls on Film is about 70 unknown movie stars. Despite appearing in countless films, they were never actually meant to be seen by the movie-going public. In fact, these women are so enigmatic that in most cases we do not even know their names. This film is a tribute to these forgotten women.

Officially known as color-timing control strips, these anonymous female film studio workers were affectionately dubbed "china girls" by the industry. The images in this show were meant only for use by the processing lab to match color tones in the associated film. 

Initially heavily scratched and faded, each images has been enlarged, restored and edited until these unknown and formerly unseen women resemble publicity snapshots of well-known film stars.

Jean Bourbonnais, a former projectionist at the National Film Board of Canada, compiled the heads and tails of numerous 35mm international films into a 16-minute-plus montage called China Girls. Bourbonnais addressed the mystery of these unknown leader ladies with a decidedly feminist slant, calling them "the voiceless workers of a proto-sex industry, entertaining mostly male lab technicians over the course of the working hours, similar to the pin-ups or sexy girl calendars found in most car repair shops or other blue collar male-dominated fields of work, China Girls are there to brighten up a gloomy day."

Hmm...I never thought of China Girls as the equivalent of a Snap-on Tools calendar hung in a film lab technician's workshop, but Bourbonnais makes an interesting point.


A China Girl answers the Hot Line: "A call for President Trump? Please hold, Mr. Putin!"

Speaking of Girls On Film...Years ago, I discovered China Girls thanks to John Heyn (of Heavy Metal Parking Lot fame). John also directed a short film called Girls On Film that celebrated these unknown women who appeared at the beginning of film reels and were used by lab technicians for color quality control. And it still holds a special place in my heart, no doubt because John used an obscure pop song by the Passions ("I'm in Love With a German Film Star") as his accompanying soundtrack.



Here's John Heyn's description of his film:

GIRLS ON FILM is an experimental film that captures the fleeting images from countdown leaders of old film prints. The "china girls" who appeared in these unseen film frames were posing for far less than aesthetic purposes and more for technical reasons. Their fleshtones and accompanying color-charts helped the film lab technicians calibrate the color-rendition of the film stock. The soundtrack is the 1981 new wave hit "I'm In Love with a German Film Star" by The Passions.

I recently discovered another China Girls montage set to an obscure pop soundtrack. Called "Lili On the Web" - in France, China Girls are called "Lili," perhaps after the traditional name for film slates used in Technicolor shoots -  it uses April March's song "Chick Habit" (itself an English cover of the Serge Gainsbourg composition "Laisse Tomber les Filles" - or, "Leave the Girls Alone" - which was originally sung by in 1964 by France Gall) as a musical backdrop. "Chick Habit" was also used in the film soundtracks of But I'm a Cheerleader and Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof.


lili on the web from BkTs on Vimeo.

And on that note, I bid thee farewell with this knowing wink (or is it a blink?) from a vintage China Girl:



Related Links:
Leader Ladies Project (Chicago Film Society web site)
Leader Lady Project (Facebook page)
The Forgotten "China Girls" Hidden At the Beginning of Old Film Reels (Sarah Laskow, Atlas Obscura)
Countdown To Ecstasy: China Girls (Accelerated Decrepitude)
China Girls, Redux (Accelerated Decrepitude)
16mm Leader China Girls (Brian Durham, YouTube)
China Girl (Jean Bourbonnais, YouTube)
Lili On the Web (Vimeo)


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