DescriptionRolls of 16mm film in their storage cases
Time Period1923 –
DetailsFilm cases in metal and plastic
Dimensions20 rolls measure 18 cm in diameter
3 rolls measure 14 cm in diameter
2 rolls measure 27 cm in diameter
LocationUCL Cabinet of Obsolete Media
Inventory nºUCL201710

Definitions of “film leader”can be material, referring to a seemingly blank strip of plastic film base that has not been treated with an emulsion that would allow images to be captured and developed, or structural, indicating any length of film spliced to the beginning or the end of a reel of the images intended for consumption in order to help feed the desired film smoothly onto the projector and test that it is working properly. One or both sides of 16-millimeter-wide film leader are usually perforated with rectangular holes intended to catch on the projector’s sprockets and convey the length along the mechanical pathway.

Film leader that falls into the latter, structural, category and is positioned at the beginning, or head, often consists of film that was treated with emulsion and developed to convey technical information about the film’s making and projection specifications, as well as a countdown to test that the audio and visual components are in good working order. Anonymous “leader ladies” frequently appear at their start, accompanied by a gray scale or color bars as a means of checking the print’s quality within or across developing labs.  

Film leader that has not been treated with emulsion is spliced to developed film to likewise help feed it into the projector safely when in use and, when at the head, winds around the outer edge of the reel, protecting the delicate surfaces beneath, while in storage. In editing, sections of it can also be spliced into the developed film to serve as spacers. Over time, the site of these splices can actually pose a threat to the film the leader is meant to protect, as the adhesive can become brittle and cause breakages.

Blank film leader can be purchased in large spools. It comes in many different colors and can be clear or opaque. The density of spooled film leader serves as a reminder that the clear is not truly clear, however; its perforated edges can form optical patterns that radiate outward in bands, and the many layers beneath the flat surface of the film leader on the exterior rim may create their own striations, concealing the spool at the center from view. Still, individual layers of clear film leader can be transparent enough to serve as a base for drawn or painted images unconstrained by individual frames. Scratching the surface of certain kinds of opaque film leader can also be a form of image-making.

Some experimental filmmakers have taken up film leader as a primary part of their works, rather than keeping it relegated to the margins. Countdowns and leader ladies have both been the basis of films made from found footage. Blank film leader used as the body of a piece can provide an opportunity for reflexiveness on time and the materiality of film, while dust or simply the mechanics of the projector can make marks of their own. Film leader has also been used in installation works with no projector present.