China Girls

Published on January 30th, 2009 in: Feminism, Issues, Movies |

By Chelsea Spear

Working as a production assistant on a low-budget movie teaches and rewards the novice cineaste in ways that might not immediately pay off. One of the most enduring lessons I learned during my internship involved an archaic slab of film technology. While the film’s director was working on color correction, I frequently almost-spotted the image of a woman’s face at the start and end of a reel.

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She was a young woman with blonde hair, sitting in a garden with the sun backlighting her brittle tendrils. The blip of time in which she flashed by didn’t allow for the facial expression to register, but from what little I could see she gazed up at the sky with a Cheshire-cat smile playing on her red-painted lips. From the color palette and middle-gray card that dominated the right two-thirds of the frame, I guessed that this image was used to maintain consistent color and contrast on the reels, but. . . who was this woman in the picture? What purpose did she serve?

The otherwise anonymous woman in the picture was unofficially dubbed “Margie” by the lab technicians that came across her. She was among the last women to appear as a “China Girl” test model for Kodak before they were able to regulate flesh tones and color spectra digitally. In the analog era of filmmaking, the China Girl images allowed lab employees to check the color consistency of several reels of film without looking at the other thousand frames on the rest of the reel. When films were restored or transferred from film to video, the China Girl image served as both a point of reference (and perfectly-calibrated color image) and a visual palate cleanser for those working in video transfers or film restoration.

No one is quite sure how the China Girls gained their hinky nickname. Some theories suggest that Asian women were among the earliest Laboratory Aim Density models, a theory that doesn’t hold water when looking at the wide variety of China Girls throughout the years. While Asian China Girls existed, they appeared on the headers of films that originated from Asian countries. Another theory suggests that they got their nickname because many of the women in the pictures wore their hair in tight chignons that caused their eyes to slant. Some images uphold this theory, while others do not. The theories most based in fact hinge on a common sartorial denominator (many of the women appear in the same mandarin-collared psychedelic blouse) or on the fact that a few China Girls are, in fact, made of china.

I hadn’t learned any of this during my time in the dredges of filmmaking. There was no one in post production who I could ask about the image without appearing an idiot, and if there’s any group of people who don’t suffer fools easily, it’s a roomful of black-clad New York film professionals. My scant attempts at searching for more background on the photos turned up nothing, presumably because I didn’t have the correct colloquial name for them.

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5 Responses to “China Girls”

  1. Rev. Syung Myung Me:
    January 31st, 2009 at 9:11 pm

    This is a great article! I haven’t seen _Death Proof_ yet (I really should have seen Grindhouse when it was at the Cinerama), but is it the April March version of “Chick Habit”, the original French version with the title I don’t remember by Serge Gainsbourg (and I think France Gall?), or a different version all together? I really like that song (both versions mentioned but my favorite’s the April March one a’cause it’s in a language I know).

    Also, I’m about to look up that Passions video, too. Neato!

  2. Chelsea:
    January 31st, 2009 at 10:55 pm

    Actually, the Passions/CGs mashup was taken off of YT in the past few weeks — seems that Warner owns the rights to the song and were being hardasses about licensing fan vids to YT.

    “Chick Habit” is April March’s English language cover, and not France Gall’s “Laissier Tout Les Femmes”.

    I’m glad you liked the article!

  3. John:
    February 4th, 2009 at 5:22 pm

    This is a really fascinating article!

  4. Popshifter » The Passions, Thirty Thousand Feet Over China:
    May 30th, 2009 at 9:50 pm

    […] In Love with a German Film Star.” The images and footage of China Girls left me gobsmacked (more about that here), but the song lingered in my mind long after I first viewed the short. Though the British […]

  5. Davo of Oz:
    February 11th, 2014 at 10:49 pm

    From what I was told when I asked a lab technician may years ago, they are called “China Girls” because they use models with “porcelain skin”. The reference to ‘china’ is, as in a ‘china plate’ or ‘china tea-set’, refers to high quality porcelain. The coloured and grey scale squares are used to colour grade the film and the girls face is used to check the skin tones.

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