Posts Tagged ‘cinematography’

Chinagirls – by collectors of esoteric film artefacts


Cathy – a chinagirl from Colorfilm, c 1978

I have no idea why, but an unusual Facebook page popped up on my screen recently. It belonged to the North West Chigaco Film Society, and was their Chinagirl/LeaderLady page. It set me to reminiscing – always a dangerous thing!

Lab technicians and film projectionists know about chinagirls, but few others. Two or more frames of a test film consisting of a head and shoulders image – usually of a young woman – and a series of neutral grey squares were routinely cut into the head leader of every reel of film that was printed by the lab. It was used to check and control the colour balance in the print.

Although Kodak supplied rolls of their own version of a chinagirl, many labs created their own, typically featuring an attractive member of the lab staff: possibly the closest she ever got to making it into the movies. But whilst fame and fortune might have eluded them, those chinagirls had a small role in every film that the lab handled – possibly dozens a year, more in many labs.

Placed just before the countdown leader, they should never have been seen in a public screening: but in test screenings, or with careless projectionists, that face – always the same shot, lit the same, with the same expression (or occasionally, caught blnking) would flash subliminally on the screen, impinging deep into the audience’s subconscious.

What I didn’t realise, was that the chinagirl – known in various labs as the lady, or the  ladywedge, the dolly, the Lily, as well as chinagirl – had become such a collectors’ item.

Cinema Paradiso

Cinema Paradiso

In Cinema Paradiso, the old projectionist had to censor his films, and cut out scenes of people kissing. Young Toto was always trying to get hold of the pieces of film. It seems there are many real-live Totos around, collecting -not people kissing- but single frames of the young women whose images once flickered so briefly onto their screens.

Rose - chinagirl

Rose – and more. Music by Sailor.

At Colorfilm, we also shot our own chinagirl. Rose worked in negative assembly, and one day the lab manager Tom stopped her in the corridor and said “Rose, how would you like to be in films?”. Off we went to the old Supreme Studios, and rolled off several hundred feet of Rose, sitting perfectly still on a stool, with a grey card in front of her.

We obviously had time on our hands in those leisured days then – it was back in 1974!. Discovering that we weren’t the only lab to have a chinagirl, my colleague Rick put this reel together for our Christmas goof reel that year

Lily vimeo clip

Another musical clip, for the Lille short film festival. Music: Hang it Up Daddy by Chick Habit

But wait – there’s more here – put together for the Festival du Film Minute de Lilles – (a collection perhaps of Lilies?).

Harvard Film Museum exhibition

Karen Segal and Julie Buck

In fact,  back in 2008, a couple of visual artists at the Harvard Film Museum carefully restored and made frame enlargements of about 70 chinagirls, and mounted an exhibition – once again accompanied by a video clip (after all, these still frames deserve to be seen in motion on the big screen, with a great soundtrack, don’t they!).

Who knew? – that those ephemeral frames are now the subject of exhaustive – and perhaps a trifle obsessive – collections? There’s no real equivalent for these minor works of art in digital cinema – so the chinagirl is just one more symbol of a passing technology, more or less born and died at each end of the twentieth century. But these girls will live on – at least as long as those who have collected them.

More on the subject here.


Arthur Cambridge slips away into the night.

Arthur Cambridge, the legendary film grader from Colorfilm and later Atlab, has died.

Arthur was one of the small cadre of Colorfilm staff who had a hand in more feature films in those glory days of the 70s and 80s than anyone else in the industry. He, negative matcher Margaret Cardin, lab liaison Bill Gooley and optical effects specialist Roger Cowland, were the dream team!

Arthur CambridgeFrom the early days of the Australian film renaissance, Arthur developed an eye for colour balance, but more importantly, an empathy for exactly what look and mood the cinematographer and director wanted to achieve in telling the story of the film. For film after film, Arthur’s first answer print (made once the camera negative had been cut) was almost invariably accepted with very few further corrections – no mean achievement in the days when colour video monitors bore only a passing resemblance of the projected film print image. His skill in delivering the right look with only the rudimentary controls of red, green or blue, lighter or darker, was remarkable. None the less, Arthur would emerge from grading almost every feature announcing that it was the most difficult job he’d ever tackled.

Some jobs were indeed difficult, however: ironically, the challenge of blending archival newsreel footage of the Maitland floods with Phil Noyce’s new material for Newsfront, despite it all being black and white, had this writer and Arthur working late into the night – but successfully so, as when the film was released in the UK, the director gave up trying to match our results through his UK lab, and requested prints from Colorfilm.

When Colorfilm closed in 1990, Arthur moved straight over to Atlab: his skill was undiminished, but the best days were over. The dream team was no more, with only Roger Cowland of the four still around, and feature production was slumping after the removal of the 10BA tax breaks. However, he continued grading for another decade before retiring.

While younger film graders made the switch to digital colour correction, Arthur remained resolutely a film grader, using the familiar Colormaster equipment. This writer recalls an occasion however, when he was called to a telecine suite by a colourist who couldn’t match two shots in a print that Arthur had graded. Arthur watched the colourist struggle with gamma, lift and gain controls for a while, then quietly asked if he could try. He reached across, moved each control once, and the shots matched perfectly!

Arthur’s extraordinary skills came into their own again when Atlab produced restored prints of many of the features of that era for NFSA’s Atlab/Kodak collection. He had graded most of them the first time around, and remembered exactly how they looked then. Picnic at Hanging Rock came back with exactly the same brooding atmosphere, while The Night, The Prowler was exactly the right shade of blue – something no other grader would have imagined!

At an editors’ conference around 1991 this writer gave a talk (as part of a panel) about the arrival of computers into film editing rooms, and the consequent loss of a training path for assistant editors. As an analogy it was pointed out that the introduction of computers into the grading room some years previously had reduced opportunities for assistant colour graders to learn the skills – and as a result there was no ‘next wave’ of film graders coming through. During questions, someone asked the panel if this was true, and what we would all do when Arthur Cambridge retired. One of the other panellists muttered “stop making films, I suppose”.

Arthur is survived by his wife Jan and sons Doug and Mark.


This memory was first published in Screenhub.

Cinematographers speak of change

 Two panel discussions at the recent Society of MOtion Picture and Television Engineers’ conference (SMPTE-13) covered the issues that are confronting cinematographers in the tumultuous change to digital imaging. I wrote these observations for Screenhub.

The first session was called “What Rules – Creativity or Technology” and asked “Why doesn’t the cinematographer have ultimate control over what tools they use?” The high-profile panel, led by Cal Gardiner ACS, included cinematographers Denson Baker ACS, Ben Allen ACS and Tom Gleeson, post supervisor Henry Karjalainen, colorist Adrian Hauser, editor Scott Gray ASE and VFX Director Chris Godfrey. Moderating the discussion was movie expert and presenter Renee Brack.

Ben ALlan ACS

Ben Allan ACS

Discussion revolved around the choice of camera, and how that choice was dictated: sometimes simply by budget, sometimes for reasons of workflow or advice by the post house. The curve settings, LUTs  and choice of recording format all need to fit with the selected workflow through post production, but these settings can have a profound effect on the “look” of the image,traditionally the DOP’s preserve.

Denson Baker said he chose not to be in charge of all camera or post settings: he concentrated on creative decisions: camera placement, lens and lighting. Tom Gleeson agreed that a DOP doesn’t have the automatic right to choose the tools as the post house may need a different format for many reasons. However, if the camera has been selected because of a good deal on price, but he felt it was the wrong choice, then he would make the effort to find a better price on a different camera. He railed against smaller post houses that over-compressed large image files “oh there’s such a lot of footage!”

As a post production supervisor, Henry Karjalainen believed DOPs were indeed in charge of their tools “because we need them to be”. He said his role was to “bring the shot films to life, by putting together a package that would achieve the director’s desires”. Post supervisors are often brought in too late though.

Like Denson, editor Scott Gray said he concentrated on the creative decisions: he wasn’t the data wrangler. But at this point he produced what should have been a game-changer in this discussion: within his creative control as an editor, he said that he was able to zoom in or reframe the shot “to direct the audience’s attention to where I want it”.

Astonishingly (to this writer), none of the cinematographers on the panel picked up on this. In a discussion on the DOP’s loss of creative control, this should have been a red rag to a bull. Framing is fundamental to the cinematographer’s art. But the conversation simply continued along the lines of camera and workflow choice, even in the light of Denson Baker’s earlier comments about controlling camera placement.

Chris Godfrey said that every shot was a compromise between everyone’s needs, but that all participants needed to agree on those compromises at the start of the shoot. He said that there were hundreds of blow-ups and reframes in The Great Gatsby, easily managed because they were shot in 5K resolution. (Admittedly 3D productions do need different framing treatment to manage convergence issues).He noted that every 5K frame (in a 3D pair) was about 100Mbytes. Adrian Hauser noted that he only started colour grading on Gatsby after principal photography had been completed: but there was sufficient image quality in all the material to achieve the required final look. Smaller or cheaper productions weren’t always so safe, he said. Chris Godfrey agreed, emphasising that “the most expensive VFX shot is the one that doesn’t work”. CG backgrounds could always be fixed, but if the live action foreground element isn’t working, then there is no shot.

After a lot more discussion Ben Allan really summed up the session when he said “if the camera is the most interesting thing on the set, then you’ve got problems”.

The second panel on Wednesday, entitled “The Future Vision” was moderated by Erika Addis. The speakers were cinematographers Kim Batterham, Rob Moreton, Dan Freene, Callan Green, Vivyan Madigan and David Peers. Discussion revolved not around futuristic technology, but about the changing work practices in film production, and the skill levels of newer entrants.

Erika Addis

Erika Addis

Kim Batterham led in by reflecting on the increasing complexity of technology and practices over the last thirty years, noting many entrants to the industry now lacked any qualifications. Rob Moreton questioned how many more pixels, how much more speed and dynamic range we needed in our cameras. Callan Green reckoned there were so many people now getting involved in cinematography that the sector was in danger of falling apart. Like several of the panellists he was a keen advocate of mutual support within cinematography, spruiking the benefits of belonging to the ACS and attending meetings and conferences.

Dan Freene commented that the explosion of websites for even the simplest business meant that everyone needed visual content, and there was heaps of work for young cinematographers. However, this explosion pushed budgets down throughout the range, resulting in producers and production managers with absolutely no experience. For example, if a cinematographer insisted on hiring a low-loader in order to shoot moving car scenes, he or she might be replaced by another one who would do it cheaply (and illegally) from a motorbike. Ultimately this would become the norm. David added that the dodgy shots might also have problems that could be fixed in post – but the post house would get “drilled” to fix these unbudgeted problems.

Vivyan Madigan advocated a traditional learning path, learning on set as an assistant rather than simply picking up a camera without knowing how to shoot. There was a general sense that no amount of experience shooting solo with a DSLR equipped the shooter to work in a crew or follow the disciplines of more structured productions. Dan pointed to press photographers who were asked to shoot movie clips on the same camera they were using for stills – a slippery path to an expectation of being a fully-blown cinematographer, but lacking any knowledge of lighting or crew work.

They all felt that the availability of DSLRs and other cheap cameras meant that few people now were prepared to enter the industry as runners, focus pullers or second assistants. Kim said that AFTRS set out to teach structure, and how to express a vision: David said “if people have a passion, we can give them the skills.

Looking to the future, David predicted that the flurry of new equipment and methods would settle down within five years, and training and crew issues would be resolved, and the balance between technology and storytelling would be resolved. He pointed to similar disruptions in editing when non-linear systems were introduced (twenty years ago), and in animation. Dan said this was a weird period – this was “the year that Atlab (Deluxe) closed (stopped film processing) – with hardly a murmur”.

Both discussions clearly agreed with the maxim that “the technology has only arrived when it’s gone away”, aching for a time when creativity would once again dominate. For the time though, technology was the obsession. Maybe it really is, or maybe the surroundings – a large exhibition full of high-tech equipment with engineers crawling all over it, influenced their thinking.

But it’s high time ACS put on a panel discussion about editors and reframing.