This article has been peer-reviewed.

I am in a darkened back room of The Australian Mediatheque watching one of the 128 films that were donated to The Australian Centre for the Moving Image by the Chinese Consulate in Sydney. These are mostly reels of 16mm celluloid film, but there are also just a few 35mm films in the collection. I take the reels out of their canisters, unspool the leaders, thread the celluloid carefully, tracing the arcane pattern insisted by the wheels, gates, mirrors and lenses of the Steenbeck editing table. The flatbed editing table allows me to keep my eye on the celluloid as it unwinds, and see the images themselves as they are illuminated from behind and rise forward into the screen. The Steenbeck offers intricate control over the celluloid. Users can set the dial for movement forwards and backwards, regulate the pace and pause if something catches their eye. This process provides a broad perspective of the details of the whole film. This includes the length of white leader, the successive frames that count down to the beginning of the film, any scrawled writing or formal printing that designates the brand of film, even the frame that synchronises image and sound with a pop. Most surprising is the presence of just a few frames that show a woman surrounded by blocks of colour sequestered into the countdown to the beginning of the film.

As I prepare to watch one of the films, I almost accidentally notice a fleeting image of a woman who appears in the viewfinder. She seems to be looking towards the camera. This woman is wearing a finely checked shirt and a red vest decorated with a deep black butterfly brooch. The outline of her dark hair is haloed with light, distancing her from the background and contrasting with the purple curtain in the background. This image radiates light, particularly from the glow of the skin. The lightest points in the composition are evident in highlights which trace a line down her nose, circulating light on her cheeks and diffusing patterns of light on her chin and forehead. Whilst these patches of light radiate forward, darkness surrounds the edges, blurring the definition of the frame. To the right of the woman is a vase of coloured flowers including tulips, daisies and a calla lily. The intricate combination of light and colour, costume, makeup and staging defines the focus and depth of the image.

Another film begins with a different image of a woman who is similarly positioned within a highly coloured composition. This woman stands just to the right of the frame, leaning on a box that bears yellow, pink and blue stripes. The box also supports a patterned vase containing green foliage with just a few cream, red and pink coloured flowers. Similar flowers are pinned to her beige trench coat. This composition requires the woman to position her right arm over the box and to bring her hands together in an awkward clasp, left over right revealing a gold and silver watch. She wears a red crew necked jumper. This woman looks to the left of frame, and her profile is lit to enhance her pale skin tone. Similar to the first image, this frame is calibrated for sharpest focus on the face.

Similar, seemingly estranged images of women are interspersed into the countdown of most films within the collection. More often than not, these frames are unrelated to the narrative of the film that they herald. In other instances, the frame is a snippet taken from the film itself. One image from a 1959 film Chasing the Fish Spirit (Ying Yunwei) shows a character played by Wang Wenjuan, against a background of brown toned blocks. This is a composite image of the character in costume, alongside a framed image of colour blocks, abstracted signifiers originally denoting the film’s colour palette. She is wearing a high collared outfit, with a red embroidered cape and her hair is adorned with a snake like headpiece and hanging jewels. Chasing the Fish Spirit is a Yue Opera, a popular theatrical form in Shanghai, where women played the roles of young men. In this frame, however, the actual colours of the image (and the film itself) can only be imagined, the palette has become dominated by the brown colours clouding the more vivid palette that would have been processed in the lab before the initial screening of the film. A different frame that precedes a film titled Adventures of Opera Singers (Yang Gaisen and Zhang Lukun, 1982) shows a woman positioned against a background of colour blocks, but here the image is dominated by magenta and white. Her outfit is white and various shades ranging from pink and almost lilac to magenta. Her hair has become deeply crimson. This is an effect of time on the Kodak Eastman colour film print where the cyan and yellow hues fade faster than the magenta. Both of these frames show the impact of time in the altered colours as well as in the marks and scratches on the image itself. It is here that we notice how vulnerable film colour can be and the dynamism of celluloid as it transforms with age.

Chasing The Fish Spirit, (Ying Yunwei, 1959)

Adventures of Opera Singers (Yang Gaisen and Zhang Lukun, 1982)

These “hidden” images originally worked to denote the colour palette of the film. They are indexical representations of the technologies and materials of celluloid film production. These frames are silent, still communications from the film laboratory to the projection booth, a disembodied sign of the original colour palette. These particular four images represent variations on the practice of ensuring consistent colour density, timing and grading, processes that have a long history in the production of celluloid film. They also show how film processing practices used images of women as living, but still and silent test patterns. With the focus decidedly on the face, those more generic frames also identify the desired skin tone for this film and others. This article is dedicated to re-examining these hidden images as culturally significant, historically neglected phenomena. It will do this by tracing the appearance, disappearance and transformation of these images across a range of media materials. It will begin by investigating some early examples on black and white film stock and it will then explore the transformation of this image across a range of photographic technologies. It will investigate the uneasy transition from celluloid to digital and back again, particularly the nostalgic reimagination of these images in films like Death Proof (Tarantino, 2007) and Yang Fudong’s installation, The Colored Sky: New Women II (2015), both of which return these images to the public view.

The Leader Lady

One material aspect of film that is both lost and transformed in the transition from celluloid to digital cinema is the image of the “Leader Lady”. These images began as four or five frames spliced into the countdown sequence of a black and white film reel. The frames displayed an image of a woman alongside abstracted black to white colour blocks. These black and white images stood as indexical markers of the intensity of lighting and contrast. Peter Monaghan writes that “In the black-and-white era, the human figures combined with tones from white to black to allow techs to produce consistent “black-and-white density” – that … relates to the opaqueness of the silver salts and sensitizing dyes that emerge from the film developer.”1 Monaghan’s quote illustrates the specific materials that form the Leader Lady image, but also those that she both represents and controls. This frame (and all others) are built from photosensitive celluloid emulsion, silver salts, chemicals and light, the fundamental elements of film. This is amplified in colour film as specific hues and density need to cohere across shots and sequences. They herald the film and assure consistency in density, contrast and timing. Leader Lady frames act as a synecdoche for cinema itself, chemically, materially, technically, aesthetically, but also culturally.

La Fille de l’eau/Whirlpool of Fate (Jean Renoir, 1925)

How Green Was My Valley (John Ford, 1941)

Images of Leader Ladies were created in the film processing laboratory and existed to achieve uniformity from reel to reel, from print to print and across the various projectors and screens used for exhibition. These frames support the illusion of aesthetic continuity, something that is achieved by moderating both colour balance and timing across scenes that may have been filmed out of sequence. Colour timing imposes an artificial standard in order to develop an illusion of continuity. Colour balance is facilitated by the calibration of the lighting involved in the printing of the negative. The image of the Leader Lady provides a central, standard measurement for these processes, even in black and white film. With the standardisation of colour film stock, these frames came to function as measurements of the luminosity of objects, surfaces and particularly skin tones. Used to assure colour control from the margins, the Leader Lady’s spectral image is rarely glimpsed, but her influence on the consistency of tone, control of colour, exposure and contrast informs the publicly visible narrative.

Conventionally these images focus on the faces of women. However, some frames use mannequins, children, babies and dogs. I have even seen a Superman Leader Lady. In rare instances, the model is male and the skin tone is not white. Mostly, the frames are photographic stills, but there are just a few examples where consecutive frames reveal a hint of movement, a blink or a wink. Such movement highlights the secretive, almost salacious function of these images. As Genevieve Yue notes, whilst these images are are still, they exist as fragments within a time-based medium. 2 Representing the basic unit of celluloid, the still, photographic frame, these images are singular and simultaneously pivotal to aesthetic continuity. On one hand, these images appear to be entirely functional. They are correction and timing images calibrating image density and colour, establishing consistent hues, ensuring correct timing throughout the film. However, just as they are chemical and technological, they are equally significant cultural markers.

Whilst Leader Ladies function as a standardised control patch, the frames themselves show a surprising degree of informality in staging and framing. This informality is suggested in images of women who appear with their eyes partially or completely closed. Some Leader Ladies look off screen, deliberately exposing the skin on the side of their face, others are positioned directly to camera and with the colour strip below. These images look like strangely coloured mug shots. Facial expressions range from an intense, direct look, to a sullen, resentful sneer, to a radiant, luminous glow. Some frames are related to the films that they lead, others contrast, or even comment on the thematic context of the film’s narrative. The Leader Lady for the 1951 Mighty Mouse animation Goons From The Moon (Connie Rasinski, 1951) bears absolutely no resemblance to the film that she heralds. These shots can also contain focus charts and colour wheels. Most of these shots carry the insignia of the laboratory, and/or the precise detail of the film stock (eg. Extachrome Commercial Film, type 7255, or Cinevex Laboratories). In one example from the slasher film Black Christmas (Bob Clark, 1971) a woman stands behind a gigantic colour chart, with her head the only part of her body visible beyond the colour blocks. The disembodied woman perhaps functioning metonymically for the violence that will follow. One image that precedes a print of Shinoda’s Pale Flower (1964) replaces the model’s eyes with holes punched into the celluloid. At best, the Leader Lady’s look appears to be distracted, diverted and disgruntled. At worst, her vision is erased entirely.

Goons From The Moon (Connie Rasinski, 1951)

Black Christmas (Bob Clark, 1974)

Cinevex Film

Pale Flower (Shinoda, 1964)

Photographing and framing the Leader Lady was the purview of film processing lab workers. These images were part of a secretive, hidden circulation of images, messages made for and circulated between lab workers and film projectionists. These were reserved for the eyes of those working between post-production and projection. These were private images, traded between workers and sometimes collected by them too. Yue writes that “the only way a China Girl may be glimpsed in a theatre would be if a projectionist failed to switch reels at the correct time” and that, “even then, the short duration of the China Girl’s appearance would be just as easy to miss, lost in the blink of an eye.” 3

A collection of Leader Lady images was first displayed publicly in 2005 when Karin Segal and Julie Buck created the exhibition Girls on Film at the Courthouse Gallery, Anthology Film Archives, New York City. Many of the images collected were digitised and incorporated into the short film Girls on Film (Segal and Buck, 2005). Northwest Chicago’s Film Society developed an online project that collects Leader Ladies from around the world. Chicago’s China Girls/Leader Ladies Project exhibits these images online and contextualises them with details of film titles and information from film historians and technicians. This digital archive contains an explanation of the intricate processes involved with colour grading by Dominic Case. He notes that, “Printing and processing film is a complex set of optical and chemical steps, and it’s easy for the colours to shift from one copy to the next: by including a known standard image, lab QC technicians could take densitometer readings of the grey squares, and also make a visual assessment of the facial flesh tones to determine if the print was within tolerance.” 4 These archival projects are committed to not only making the frames visible, but contextualising them by identifying the processes and restoring some of their historical details. These initiatives have not only brought the images into the public view, they have also resulted in the identification of some of the higher profile stars who were also Leader Ladies. Caroline Munro who is credited as ‘Beautiful Brunette’ in her first film appearance in the Italian-American co-production, Smoke Over London (Alberto Sordi, 1966), who has forty-seven film credits and who continues to work today, was a Leader Lady. Carolee Hersee was a “colour test girl” at 8 years old. Her father was a colour test engineer for the BBC. She went on to design costumes for theatre and film. Frames of Nargis Dutt, best known for playing Radha in Mother India (Mehboob Khan, 1957) were also used as Leader Ladies.

Leader Ladies are ephemeral phenomena, often aligned with numbers that count down to the beginning of the film. Yue mentions that often these frames are “cut into the countdown leader, normally between the numbers 10 and 3,” 5, literally disrupting the countdown. Leader Ladies can be classified as “neglected phenomena,” in terms similar to those that Vivian Sobchack uses to describe process shots like back projection and travelling mattes. 6 Historically, these frames form part of that range of abstract signifiers that mark the specificity of the cinema: countdown numbers, cue marks, the sound strip, scratches, tears and transforming colour, all unique aspects of the material and texture of celluloid itself. Ironically, these colour correction images are subject to the same forces that alter the celluloid. These images fade, become scratched, marked and torn as they pass through the projector and are exposed to the light. As test strips and precursors to the film itself, Leader Ladies have conventionally been seen as less valuable than the publicly visible frames.

Re-examining such neglected phenomena helps to construct a broader, more expansive history of the cinema, one that includes frames that precede the film. However, these images are only visible when researchers have access to the broader materials of the film, specifically the beginnings of a reel of celluloid film. The images are best viewed if we adopt a similar approach to looking intently at still frames as has been shown by Hannah Frank. 7 Advocating for an approach that values viewing individual frames of animated film, Frank writes, “imagine not watching a film but looking at it frame by frame. Bodies in motion would suddenly freeze, their irresistible sensuousness submitting to clinical scrutiny. Minute details in the photographic image would supplant the broader strokes of the narrative. The part would overwhelm the whole.” 8 Following Frank’s approach, these frames can be viewed, examined and analysed to illuminate the presence of the uncredited women as invisible forces in the creation of a new and previously unimagined historiography, one that identifies the value of the women workers who star in some of these frames. Genevieve Yue identifies China Girls as part of a “shadow history”, particularly in contrast to the plethora of research on film stocks and methods of standardisation in film production. 9 Shadow histories emerge into the light when we focus on less visible, neglected phenomena. They are often revealing of broader tendencies in culture and this one in particular allows us to point towards specific biases in the cinema. As images of display, Leader Ladies themselves remained silent and unacknowledged. Women who posed for these images were often part of the invisible labour force in film processing labs. In all cases the Leader Lady is an uncredited, anonymous presence, one created within the film laboratory.

These images have been variously named “China Girls”, “China Dolls”, “China Ladies”, “Leader Ladies”, “Lady Wedges” or even “Girl Heads”. Whilst these descriptive classifications prevail, their actual names remain uncredited. To resist perpetuating racial and gender stereotyping, here the women who populate these frames are called Leader Ladies. I identify them as such due to their position within the leader of the film, and to promote the otherwise hidden influence of these uncredited women in film processing and projection. An even more appropriate label would be Leader Women. As Yue remarks, “in Western nations, the China Girl is almost always female, young, conventionally attractive, and, despite the racial connotations of the name, white.” 10 Yue argues that a “more likely origin is the orientalist connotation of the term, expressed in the makeup, mandarin-collared clothing, and tightly drawn hairstyles of the women, which privilege a woman’s subordinate, submissive behavior, qualities that would be consistent with the technological function the image serves.” 11 Layers of racially inflected stereotyping are explicit in the use of the term “China Girl” which “circulates as part of laboratory vernacular” and in film criticism has been attributed to the porcelain skin tones, or the “delicate and refined quality that models aspired to in their appearance or dress.” 12 Such vernacular language of Western film processing reveals how both the construction of images and the processes of their naming clearly align femininity with display and technology. The exposed, lit and highlighted skin of lab workers provides evidence of this conflation of skin and apparatus. Yue writes that the China Girl “links a notion of filmic materiality with femininity, particularly one that is racialized or orientalised.” 13 The frame from Chasing the Fish Spirit seems to illustrate Yue’s assertion, particularly in the display of costume and make up. The framing of the image, however, positions the actor looking directly at the camera, destabilising the objectification necessary for the voyeuristic gaze. Additionally, as part of an all-female Operatic tradition, the broader cultural context for this image disrupts a clear link between passivity and gender.

The Leader Lady

Leader Ladies Across Media

Similar images are evident in the more visible histories of media. The ‘Kodak Girl’ was the ‘face’ of advertising campaigns for Kodak as early as 1907. 14 However, less prominent are the women who acted as emblems of colour in late night experiments in broadcast television. Benjamin Gross writes about two specific women who were referred to as “Miss Colour Television” acting as “living test patterns” for television stations WNBT (an affiliate of NBC) adopting a “colour compatible” approach and CBS who were testing their field-sequential” system.” 15 Both Marie McNamara and Patty Painter were pivotal figures in these early experiments with the transmission of colour, becoming visible in the unofficial programming schedules for both channels as late night experiments performed during the 1950s. 16 This transmission was silent, but audiences watching late at night guessed the unheard dialogue. 17 They were uniquely selected for their skin tones and hair colour. Marie McNamara and Patty Painter were “part of a much broader set of practices establishing whiteness as the default category in image representation.” 18 For Gross, such experiments impacted the culture of the emerging technologies, establishing white skin as the dominant and desirable tone for televisual transmission. Gross points to the cultural “assumptions [that are] built into their tools.” 19 As he observes, “the selection of two white women as the literal faces of colour television reflected and reinforced longstanding hierarchies of gender and race, with consequences extending well beyond the confines of 1950s America.” 20 In this history, technology is established to perpetuate and normalise pale skin tones for new colour television screens. Marie McNamara and Patty Painter were pivotal parts of colour television experimentation. Whilst they were pivotal in identifying a colour hierarchy on screen, they remained underrepresented in official histories.

Across the history of film processing, Leader Ladies traditionally display pale skin tones. Richard Dyer’s research on early cinema has established that film technology, particularly film stock and lighting, “assume, privilege and construct whiteness.” 21 Lighter flesh tones were established as the norm in early Hollywood film production. A similar hierarchy of chromatic value is reflected in the cultural discourse surrounding white in photography and in early film. Lorna Roth’s research on skin colour balance in still photography and television isolates the “Shirley” image, a light skinned Caucasian woman with colourful clothing or displaying a colour swatch. 22 This “colour test-strip-card model” was “the recognized skin ideal standard for most North American analogue photo labs since the early part of the twentieth century and they continue to function as the dominant norm.” 23 Roth’s work investigates the cultural resistance to identifying the gender and racial biases embedded within these images, identifying the difficulty of perceiving this culturally, instead, framing the photographic Leader Lady as a technological affect necessary to communicate and identify colour and contrast to the camera. It is much more than simply the technologies of lighting, filming and projection that collaborate to identify pale skin as the ideal. Yue notes the “flesh-tone issue here speaks to the racial bias in film and television equipment, manifest as the degree to which white skin is perceived as natural, ideal and uniquely correlative to instruments valued for their precision and accuracy.” 24 The Leader Lady from Chasing the Fish Spirit in particular, features the artificially lightened face of the traditional theatrical performer. As an indexical image for the broader film, this frame calibrates the colours of the rest of the film according to a shade of white that has been constructed using makeup styles more common to the Opera.

Nostalgic for the Leader Lady: Death Proof

Frames featuring Leader Ladies return to circulation as they are woven into the final credit sequence of Death Proof (Tarantino, 2007). Here, editor Sally Menke inserts images of Leader Ladies into the end of the film, reversing the conventional order and violating the private/public division by making their presence visible for those who watch the film until the very end. These images might be better classified as Credit Ladies. Unusually, these frames appear in clusters of three cut into the scrolling text of the final credit sequence. Some frames show recognisable images of Leader Ladies that have been used as colour tests for earlier films. Some are positioned next to the countdown leader, reversing classical chronology. Others display ornate countdown clocks superimposed over the image. Interspersed here is a range of other images representing further neglected phenomena. Written characters on the leader appear almost abstract and alive as they wriggle up the screen, one is discernible as the Japanese character for book. A generic frame identifying the word ‘image’ appears upside down, another is a specific card marking the end of the fifth reel of The Dirty Dozen (Robert Aldrich, 1967).

The famous frame sequence of the Leader Lady blinking appears here also. This frame emphasises the subliminal, blink and you’ll miss it, temporality that is characteristic of the Leader Lady. Most of the stock frames are cut to repeat and augment the beat of the soundtrack. Further, these silent, still frames take visual prominence within the gaps between the lyrics to April March’s rendition of “Chick Habit”. Here, the images unsettle the conventional flow of the credit sequence. Just as earlier instances of Leader Ladies disrupt the countdown, the presence of these images interrupts the song. The intervention of these frames is fleeting however, as they eventually disappear, leaving space for the credits to roll. This desire to animate the usually static frame is extended in Death Proof. Cut into the credit montage is a short, moving image that frames Arlene (Vanessa Ferlito) next to a Deluxe colour chart, a re-staging of the Leader Lady specifically for this film. Towards the end of the sequence a blurred, abstracted image of the bar scene returns the image to its colour elements. Juxtaposing these older and contemporary images highlights the degree that Tarantino’s cinema is indebted to film history.

In this iteration, Leader Ladies exist at the interstice, remaining uncredited whilst, ironically, surrounded by the details of the names of those involved with Death Proof. For Caetlin Benson-Allott the Tarantino/Rodriguez double feature Grindhouse, exists to question, “what sort of storytelling gets lost or enabled in the turn from stunts and celluloid to CGI and high-definition video.” 25 In this instance Menke and Tarantino’s use of analogue frames function as emphatic signs of celluloid film culture. Benson-Allott describes the nostalgic aesthetic characterised by the imperfection of the image as “digital composites, image imperfections lifted from celluloid transfers and added to the necessarily pristine HD file.” 26 These marks of time are visible in the appearance of Death Proof’s Leader Ladies and more broadly in the inclusion of dust and discolouration, in including film that shudders or strobes and by featuring buzzing sounds and celluloid nitrate that threatens to burst into flames. Such affects of analogue cinema create a “transhistorical cinematic mythology,” according to Benson-Allott, a phenomenon that marks the end of theatrical exhibition. 27 In Death Proof the Leader Lady transitions from the private sphere at the beginning of the film to the more public view amongst the end credits. The image of the Leader Lady is, ironically, an image that nostalgically returns to highlight the value of the ephemeral phenomena that threatens to be lost, or reimagined in the shift to digital. What also remains in the transition of these frames into the 2007 context is the lack of attribution.

The Leader Lady Installation: The Coloured Sky: New Women II

In Yang Fudong’s 5 screen digital video installation The Coloured Sky: New Women II (2015), the Leader Lady takes center stage. The screens are positioned in a circular pattern, some tall, portrait ratios, others horizontal landscapes. Individual screens contribute to a broader, non-linear, impressionistic narrative. There is no single approach to viewing these screens. They can be watched individually, in association with adjacent or nearby screens. They exist without an imposed sequence. On one screen a young woman walks through a landscape of coloured filters, her presence seems to change the colour of the image as she moves. The coloured filters refract and reflect the image. In another sequence the colours of a surrealist beach sunset are intensified by the heightened colours of the studio set. These are artificial images of an imagined external scene, complete with a breeze that seems to move some of the fabric whilst the participants remain still. Adding to the seemingly impossible environment, snow begins to fall just as the sun sets, radiating a deep ochre colour. Young women are styled and costumed in retro swimsuits to connote an imagined 1950s Western stereotype. Some play in the water whilst others carry lanterns, one listens to the sounds inside a shell, and many glance furtively out towards the spectator. These women belong to an artificially constructed, other world. Their pensive disposition means that they sit uneasily in the present, whilst the surreal, hypercoloured sunsets of the painted backdrops surrounds them in a spatio-temporal artifice, providing an oblique reference to the time of day, but nothing further. Reminiscent of the silent Leader Lady, these young women have no voice. Fudong reveals that the intention of this experiment was to explore how colour on digital video can improve or change the narration. 28 Fudong’s project aims to explore the transition between girlhood and womanhood. He sees these women as holding the secrets of that transition, something that is kept quiet, only hinted at through expression, gesture and movement. Christopher Moore identifies the influence of 18th Century Flemish still life paintings in the details of the installation like banquets that are sometimes fresh, other times “decomposing, corrupted by flies and snails.” 29 Moore writes: “The five screens presenting sun, sea, beach, games and food lull us into a false sense of security. A noise disturbs you—turn around. Two women stare angrily at us. Apparently some anxieties remain. Are we blocking their view? Have we not been paying (them) enough attention? … Can they really see us? The scene dissolves, as do the players’ emotions, rapidly segueing from anger to laughter to fear to sorrow. Their mercurial temperaments are as disturbing as their disdain.” 30 Nameless and without background or context, these young women are digital visions of the women that lead celluloid film. In both situations little is known of these women beyond the surface. They are embodied by the artifice of their surroundings and configured predominantly according to the colours that they display. Moore abstracts this further telling us that he imagines the images as made by and for a viewer who is reflected in the screens herself when he writes that, “subject of “Coloured Sky” is a young girl of indeterminate age, who we never see. She is imagining what it is like to be an adult woman, a glamorized “film” version of her future.” 31 For Moore, the central force creating this multi screen exhibition is invisible. If Moore’s interpretation holds true, then in the instance of The Coloured Sky: New Women II, the creator of the silent, unnamed, coloured image is the new, young woman herself.

Yang Fudong, The Coloured Sky: New Women II (2015)

The Digital Leader Lady

As products of film processing labs, these “incidental” images were often named for the company that produced them. The name “Kodak girls” was used commonly, but in 1982 as Kodak standardised the image of its Leader Lady, it further infantilised the woman and abbreviated her name. She became known as the LAD (Laboratory Aim Density) Girl, or the “LAD Lady”, both ironic gender hybridisations. The standardised image, or “standard control patch” as it was called, shows a white woman with brown hair framed by larger grey and white patches, blocks of primary colours and a Kodak insignia. As recently as 1982, the standardised image showed a single female profile of a woman, surrounded by colour swatches, designating the dominant skin tone and the primary colours that were used across the range of Kodak film stocks. This standardisation represented a shift away from multiple images of femininity, to a singular, representative image born from averaging out the colours associated with multiple Leader Ladies. One stood in for all.

The LAD Lady

This singular focus was expanded in the digital ecology. The digital colour test image features three women who represent a broader range in skin tones, a greater colour spectrum in their costume and certainly a larger variety of colour patches, objects and cues for alignment. One version of the digital Leader Lady features three naked women with a strategically placed screen, colour chart, pineapple and kangaroo paw. The nostalgic tone is highlighted with the inclusion of “analogue” communication modes depicted using hard material objects like a manual typewriter, orbital dial telephone and film reels. The image makes reference to the importance of visual acuity by including a framed picture of optical glasses, an eye test chart and even a scientific model for the eye. The broader science reference point is literalised in the chemistry beakers, a portable microscope and medical equipment. The colour timing function is literalised by the clock and broad range of hues that comprise the image on all surfaces, from plastic, metals and glass, to skin. Benjamin Gross notes that similar, contemporary colour test images like SRI’s Visualizer Test Pattern, a digital colour calibration tool for film, features a slightly more diverse array of skin tones. 32 However, these images carry and perpetuate the history of the uncredited Leader Lady, as Gross notes, these new colour test patterns serve “as a reminder of the countless women who anonymously contributed to the development of new camera and display technologies … [who were serving as] nameless embodiments of a racially inflected-and exclusively feminine-vision of beauty.” 33

Returning to the Leader Lady images that are revealed via the Steenbeck, I note that often the more generic images, seem not to be able to adequately stand in for the diversity of skin tones in the films that follow. These images represent a point of dischord with the content of the films, not coherence in colour balance, nor the timing that related to their initial function. When the image is drawn from the film itself, it provides a coherent point of reference, but sometimes a third colour palette emerges, one that bears little correspondence with the colours of the original film. The Leader Lady that instigates Adventures of Opera Singers, an image that was shot on Eastman Kodak film, skews magenta. This colour saturates the image as all other colours dissipate over time. These alternate colour palettes and their scratched surfaces are the result of celluloid use and deterioration over time. The scratches, traces of damage and the shift in aesthetics are an important element of the material itself, an indication that celluloid is a live, evolving material presence. These frames are neglected phenomena that comprise part of the hidden history of the film itself and the industrial culture of film processing. Bringing these frames that are usually hidden in the margins of film to light reveals the significant histories that enliven these still, silent frames. The Leader Lady in black and white or colour, sepia or even magenta, imprinted on celluloid, transmitted through the airwaves, or incarnated with pixels, stands as an indexical image of the less visible materials and cultural histories that define the cinema.


  1. Peter Monaghan, “China Girls, Leading Ladies, Actual Women,” Moving Image Research Archive News, (21 February, 2014), http://www.movingimagearchivenews.org/china-girls-leading-ladies-actual-women/
  2. Genevieve Yue, “The China Girl on the Margins of Film,” October, 153, (Summer 2015): p. 99
  3. Genevieve Yue, “The China Girl on the Margins of Film,” October, 153, (Summer 2015): p. 98
  4. Dominic Case, “Leader Ladies Project”, Chicago Film Society, https://www.chicagofilmsociety.org/projects/leaderladies/
  5. Genevieve Yue, “The China Girl on the Margins of Film,” October, 153, (Summer 2015): p. 98
  6. Vivian Sobchack, “Detour: Driving in a Back Projection, or Forestalled By Film Noir,” Kiss The Blood Off My Hands: On Classic Film Noir, Robert Miklitsch, ed., (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014): p. 116
  7. Hannah Frank, Frame By Frame: A Materialist Aesthetics of Animated Cartoons, (California: University of California Press, 2019)
  8. Hannah Frank, Frame By Frame: A Materialist Aesthetics of Animated Cartoons, (California: University of California Press, 2019): p. 1
  9. Genevieve Yue, “The China Girl on the Margins of Film,” October, 153, (Summer 2015): p. 99
  10. Genevieve Yue, “The China Girl on the Margins of Film,” October, 153, (Summer 2015): p. 97
  11. Genevieve Yue, “The China Girl on the Margins of Film,” October, 153, (Summer 2015): p. 99
  12. Genevieve Yue, “The China Girl on the Margins of Film,” October, 153, (Summer 2015): p. 99
  13. Genevieve Yue, “The China Girl on the Margins of Film,” October, 153, (Summer 2015): p. 99
  14. Nancy Martha West, Kodak and the Lens of Nostalgia, Virginia: University of Virginia Press, 2000, pp. 53-60
  15. Benjamin Gross, “Living Test Patterns: The Models Who Calibrated Colour TV,” The Atlantic, (June 2015), https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/06/miss-colour-tv/396266/
  16. Benjamin Gross, “Living Test Patterns: The Models Who Calibrated Colour TV,” The Atlantic, (June 2015), https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/06/miss-colour-tv/396266/
  17. Benjamin Gross, “Living Test Patterns: The Models Who Calibrated Colour TV,” The Atlantic, (June 2015), https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/06/miss-colour-tv/396266/
  18. Benjamin Gross, “Living Test Patterns: The Models Who Calibrated Colour TV,” The Atlantic, (June 2015), https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/06/miss-colour-tv/396266/
  19. Benjamin Gross, “Living Test Patterns: The Models Who Calibrated Colour TV,” The Atlantic, (June 2015), https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/06/miss-colour-tv/396266/
  20. Benjamin Gross, “Living Test Patterns: The Models Who Calibrated Colour TV,” The Atlantic, (June 2015), https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/06/miss-colour-tv/396266/
  21. Richard Dyer, White, (London: Routledge, 1997): p.89
  22. Lorna Roth, “Looking at Shirley, the Ultimate Norm: Colour Balance, Image Technologies and Cognitive Equity,” Canadian Journal of Communication, 34 (2009)
  23. Lorna Roth, “Looking at Shirley, the Ultimate Norm: Colour Balance, Image Technologies and Cognitive Equity,” Canadian Journal of Communication, 34 (2009) p.112
  24. Genevieve Yue, “The China Girl on the Margins of Film,” October, 153, (Summer 2015): p. 103
  25. Caetlin Benson-Allott, “Grindhouse: An Experiment in the Death of Cinema,” Film Quarterly, 62, 1, (Fall, 2008): p. 20
  26. Caetlin Benson-Allott, “Grindhouse: An Experiment in the Death of Cinema,” Film Quarterly, 62, 1, (Fall, 2008): p. 20
  27. Caetlin Benson-Allott, “Grindhouse: An Experiment in the Death of Cinema,” Film Quarterly, 62, 1, (Fall, 2008): p. 21
  28. Yang Fudong, Shanghai Art Gallery, (2015), http://www.shanghartgallery.com/galleryarchive/archives/detail/id/20877
  29. Christopher Moore, “Yang Fudong: The Coloured Sky: New Women II’’, Randian, (28 May 2015), http://www.randian-online.com/np_feature/yang-fudong-the-coloured-sky-new-women-ii/
  30. Christopher Moore, “Yang Fudong: The Coloured Sky: New Women II’’, Randian, (28 May 2015), http://www.randian-online.com/np_feature/yang-fudong-the-coloured-sky-new-women-ii/
  31. Christopher Moore, “Yang Fudong: The Coloured Sky: New Women II’’, Randian, (28 May 2015), http://www.randian-online.com/np_feature/yang-fudong-the-coloured-sky-new-women-ii/
  32. Benjamin Gross, “Living Test Patterns: The Models Who Calibrated Colour TV,” The Atlantic, (June 2015), https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/06/miss-colour-tv/396266/
  33. Benjamin Gross, “Living Test Patterns: The Models Who Calibrated Colour TV,” The Atlantic, (June 2015), https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/06/miss-colour-tv/396266/

About The Author

Associate Professor Wendy Haslem researches the intersections of film history and new media. Her book From Méliès to New Media: Spectral Projections (Intellect, 2019) examines the persistence of traces of celluloid materiality on digital screens. Wendy produced the 'MIFF at 70' dossier for Senses of Cinema in 2022 and her current research project is dedicated to the histories and possible futures of optics and screen media.

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