About Lost Leaders

In Brief

This research-creation project is the work of Matt Soar, Professor of Communication Studies at Concordia University in Montreal, in occasional collaboration with sound artist Jackie Gallant. It explores the meanings of commercial film ‘leaders’: the hidden footage at the beginnings and ends of film reels, littered with all kinds of esoteric markings: logos, lab notes, handwriting and type, color tests, projection cues – often taking up just a few frames each. Leaders are ‘lost’ in at least three ways: their routine invisibility from the audience; their general absence from accepted preservation and archiving protocols; and, their impending technical obsolescence. Working with a sound artist and a variety of tools – a lightbox and a macro lens, a DSLR video camera attached to a high-powered microscope, interactive narrative software, stained glass, direct animation – Lost Leaders is an extended poetic engagement with the metadata of film; the graphical detritus of processing, printing, distribution, and projection.

In Detail

In 2011 I was lucky enough to attend the Film Farm, a one-week residential filmmaking workshop run by the inimitable Phil Hoffman. Held at a farm in rural Ontario, the annual workshop emphasizes process and experimentation, using Bolex cameras, high-contrast b/w film stock, hand processing, and Steenbeck editing. One of my own experiments involved hand-weaving strips of found footage into other pieces of found footage to create unexpected juxtapositions. Some of this material was leader – the sections of film at the beginning and end of a reel, conventionally invisible to cinema audiences, and full of curious markings relating to the film stock and processing, projection requirements, handwritten notes, countdowns, and so on. The resulting film (Lost Leaders #1), with a soundtrack added later by artist and collaborator Jackie Gallant, can be seen here.

Returning to Montreal, I soon switched to 35mm found footage, chiefly because it’s wider and therefore easier to work with – and 35mm movie trailers are available in abundance on eBay (!). I began creating lightbox compositions – still images comprised of two or even three layers of film cells. (See Lightbox Sessions #1, #2, #3.) I also began working with a powerful microscope, courtesy my colleague Prof. Tagny Duff, director of Fluxmedia. using the DSLR camera attached to the microscope, I have been able to create short videos exploring the surfaces of the found footage, and stopmotion animations reworking some of the textual content of the trailers.

My collaboration with sound artist Jackie Gallant has added a much-needed dimension to the project, and our first outcomes were: Lost Leaders #1 (see above); Lost Leaders #2 (a Korsakow film in which the user literally plays the film by combining ambient sound, ‘mouseover’ sound triggered by user interactions, and sound accompanying the videos selected by the user); and, Lost Leaders #3 aka baby deer. Since those initial forays, I have recently completed a three-part, ‘handwritten’ film; a piece of cameraless animation in which the first three leaders standards are drawn by hand, each one followed by the complete text of the associated standard. This film was first shown at Orphans X (2016, Culpeper VA).

Technicolor Register and Definition Chart. From a positive nitrate print of reel 1 of 'Gone With The Wind' (1939).
Technicolor Register and Definition Chart. From reel 1 of a nitrate release print of ‘Gone With The Wind’ (1939). Note the fingers at left of frame.

In formal terms, this project is about exploring (and shamelessly aestheticizing) the ‘paratextual’ elements of film: the liminal elements of the medium which are not ‘the film’ per se (ie the thing that directors direct, editors edit, audiences watch, and critics critique). Conventionally, a movie paratext includes its trailer, promo poster, the DVD cover, and so on. Here, I’m interested in what we might call ‘producerly paratexts’: the far less obvious facets of a film that are intrinsic to its functioning, but are pointedly not for public consumption. Indeed, leaders are physical traces of a private conversation between lab technicians, distributors and projectionists, and in that sense Lost Leaders is a tribute to their hidden labour. As I aim to show with this project, they can also be extraordinarily beautiful.

You can reach Matt Soar via the Contact page here.