Searching for Leader Ladies
By REBECCA LYON
A Chicago Film Society project embraces the mysterious test-image subjects known only to projectionists and other apostles of analog.
The Chicago Film Society was founded in 2011 just as digital cinema was permanently embedding itself in nearly every theater across the country. Aside from presenting film screenings, a lot of what we do at the Film Society is to gather, document, make lists, and somehow find space (physical, virtual, and mental) in which to put all of these things. We’ve amassed collections of film prints, film projectors, projector parts, and cameras, but also information and data. We have ongoing (often overwhelming) projects that make use of these inventories, including but not limited to, the following:
- The Analog Directory: a list of every theater and organization that still screens film prints throughout the world (though the international portion needs a little work).
- Celluloid Chicago, a weekly list of every film-on-film screening in the Chicagoland area, which we’ve published since 2011.
- Sprocket School, a public wiki serving as a collection of information for all things film-related that a projectionist might need to look up on the fly. It currently has about 150 entries on various topics. The scope of Sprocket School sometimes gives me actual nightmares. It is without end.
- Even more lists within Sprocket School, including a list of 35mm features released in 1.37 after 1953, a list of 70mm film exhibitors, a list of educational films about film handling and projection, a list of post-2000 films made without a digital intermediate, a list of films featuring projection or projectionists, and so on.
- Folders and folders of images of damaged film, film stock, film cans, theater marquees, theater signs, frame enlargements from prints we’ve handled, and from those our friends have handled, etc. We need spreadsheets to keep track of our spreadsheets. Somehow all this data feels like a barrier against this thing we care about and enjoy so much being swept away by the great wave of digital cinema that was embraced by most without protest. You can’t get rid of analog film, because it existed, and IT EXISTS, and here’s a mountain of undeniable evidence that it was once screened in every cinema around the world.
The Leader Ladies Project is a small but special part of this. On the surface, “leader ladies” (photos mostly of women appearing in the countdown leader of film reels) are just test images, tools used by film laboratories for various purposes related to film processing and printing. But they are also evidence of the labor it took to make the films, to process the films, to project the films. In response to the digital cinema that we never wanted but got anyway, we’ve turned our attention backwards. If we had the time (and the storage space) to go into all the basements of the world searching for musty Goldberg cans that sometimes contain garbage but other times reveal treasure, we would do so, in the hopes that mountains of material evidence might help ensure the longevity of analog film, and help us remember the things that may never be made again. If people don’t know what they are, if they can’t see them, how will they know what they’ve lost? We are by no means Luddites—the Leader Ladies Project is what it is partly because of digital cameras and the Internet. The series we put together for Metrograph is virtual, in case you hadn’t noticed. Most of the early leader lady images we have were taken by a projectionist awkwardly holding an iPhone over a loupe balanced on a light box, trying desperately to focus on the film strip underneath: new technology in service of old technology. But the fact that digital cameras have made it possible to share leader ladies with the world goes hand in hand with the fact that digital cinema has made sharing them with the world necessary.
Leader ladies are also a little easier for the general public to love—more so than, say, a list of post-2000 films made without a digital intermediate, which is a difficult phrase to say to a normal person without putting them to sleep. Leader ladies are inherently interesting to look at and relate to, often beautiful and mysterious. “Who are they?!” people ask. They are a revealed secret, normally images formerly available to just a very small subset of the film industry: lab technicians, archivists, film collectors, and projectionists. So it feels special—like a privilege—to see them. I like to think of them as a glamorous gateway to the (decidedly unglamorous) world of analog film. We lure you in with the leader ladies and then ask you to think about labor, the upheaval of an industry, the loss of an art form. We spend hours in moldy basements shooting the shit with Grandpa so we can dust these ladies off and present them to the world in all their glory.
Truthfully, I don’t care that much about who the real women are in the photos, because I know who they are to me. They are so much more than a tool; they are, on some level, me and the Film Society. They are people who used to work in film, who probably don’t anymore because the lab closed, the movie theater swapped its projectionists for a manager who can press play on a DCP, the film depot stopped shipping prints, the negative cutter stopped receiving any negatives. And the results of their labor may just be sitting in someone’s basement waiting to be discovered.
A few years ago, I got an e-mail from a former projectionist in France who said he had some leader ladies that he’d be willing to ship to me as long as I sent them back. At first, I recoiled in horror. These had been removed from prints that passed through his hands as a projectionist—not an uncommon occurrence back in the day, but unsettling at a time when every print feels like a treasure. Eventually, curiosity piqued, I agreed to take them. A few weeks later I got a box of about 90 leader ladies, comprising a few frames each—delicately, probably lovingly, snipped from whatever print they used to live on. Some were familiar, but some were new faces, and I was thrilled. I sat in my co-worker Becca’s office, using her scanner, trying and failing to not to interrupt her work with outbursts of “Oh my god, look at this one!” I forgave him for cutting them out of the prints. He had done it long ago, when film prints were a dime a dozen, and in the end he probably saved most of them from being trashed, never to be seen again. Included in this “haul” was one of my favorites: the lady with the green sweater and the indescribable expression. Was she perplexed? Amused? Who cares, I love her. Origin (meaning the print she was found on, studio or lab where the photo was taken, country, date, etc.): completely unknown.
Sometimes we know a little more about them. I’ll end this with three more of my favorites. You may look at these and question their effectiveness as a tool of calibration and quality control (I sure do), but their unintentional effectiveness as images that make you want to know more is undeniable.
Possibly the most bizarre example I’ve ever seen comes from our friend Charles Rogers at the Academy Film Archive in Hollywood. Charles is one of our “men on the inside,” and has contributed immeasurably to the project. He discovered this image on some 70mm elements for the film Date with an Angel (1987). So here we have a tiny Tammy Faye Bakker and a tiny… who knows who that guy is.
And last but not least, a woman found on the 16mm A/B rolls of Super Up (1966) discovered by Brian Belak at the Chicago Film Archives, and a man discovered by me on a 35mm release print of the 1974 Iranian film Still Life. I have special affection for these two because they so clearly don’t fall into the professional-paid-model camp that many of the leader ladies do. The woman from the first one looks vaguely annoyed, like maybe her smoke break was interrupted when someone asked her to pose for this. They told her it was just going to take a minute, and then it took much longer, and now she needs to get back to her desk, okay? The second one I find unreasonably beautiful. Just a guy on set, face obstructed, standing in the road somewhere in the Iranian countryside. Maybe he’s an actor, or a gaffer. We’ll probably never know. •
Rebecca Lyon is a projectionist and programmer who works at the Music Box Theatre, The Block Museum of Art, and the Chicago Film Society. She oversees CFS’s Leader Ladies Project.