ACCORDING TO PUBLISHED STANDARDS, film leaders have three main purposes: protection; identification; and, synchronization. We could also add here: classification; instruction; framing; and, alignment. Before the arrival of digital cinema, there were four main stages in the evolution of film leader standards in the US: Academy (1930/1947); Society (1951); Universal (1965/1966); and, Projection (1999). The first one was developed by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences (AMPAS); the next three by the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE; originally just SMPE). Examples of the first three stages of leader design in the US (Academy; Society; Universal) can easily be found in many 35mm and 16mm film collections and archives. Their synchronization sections (ie countdowns) have especially distinctive features, and these my focus here. Although quite distinct from one another, they are often referred to generically as ‘academy leader’. NB All images here belong to their respective copyright owners.
1. THE ACADEMY LEADER (1930/1947) was originally published in 1930. It’s the earliest and simplest in graphical terms. Its numbering goes from 11 down to 3, with all figures appearing upside down. The words ‘SIX’ and ‘NINE’ usually appear below their respective figures. The numbers are spaced at 1ft intervals, ie at every 16th frame. Twenty frames before each number is a horizontal diamond. As its name suggests, the Academy Leader was an initiative of the Producers-Technicians Committee of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences (AMPAS), fully endorsed by the SMPE’s Standards & Nomenclature Committee. See ‘Standard Release Print Makeup and Practice’ (AMPAS Technical Digest, July 1930); and, Batsel, M. C. (1930) ‘Report of Standards and Nomenclature Committee’, Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, December, pp. 818-823. The Academy Leader became an American Standard in 1947. Here’s the countdown section only, frame by frame, followed by a video rendition of the countdown only:
2. THE SOCIETY [AKA ALL-PURPOSE] LEADER (1951) is quite complex in design, and is recognizable by its circles with slender arrows pointing to the sides, top, and bottom of each frame (akin to cross-hairs). The numbering is from 11 to 3, but oriented the right way up. The SIX and NINE appear as words only. The numbers are again spaced at 1ft intervals, ie at every 16th frame, with ‘echoes’ of each number in the immediately adjacent frames (so each number actually appears thrice). There are distinct 16mm and 35mm sound cues. The Society Leader was proposed by a subcommittee of the SMPTE’s Films for Television Committee, as a way to accommodate the needs of the emerging television broadcast industry. See Townsend, C. L. (1951) ‘New All-Purpose Film Leader’, Journal of the SMPTE, May, pp. 562-567. It never became an American Standard, but has had supporting roles in movies and music videos ever since. Here’s the countdown section only, frame by frame, followed by a video rendition of the countdown only:
3. THE UNIVERSAL [AKA TELEVISION] LEADER (1965/1966) is the most widely recognized, perhaps because it has been quoted repeatedly in pop culture. The numbering is 8 to 2, right way up, with a ‘clocksweep’ animated graphic. Numbers are spaced at 24-frame (1 sec) intervals. Since the 9 has been eliminated, the 6 appears as a numeral only. There are distinct 16mm and 35mm sound cues. The Universal leader was the second formal attempt to accommodate the needs of film and television. See Olding, N. R. (1965) ‘The SMPTE Universal Leader for Release Prints’ Journal of the SMPTE, Jan., pp. 34-39. It was formally proposed in 1965 and became an American Standard in 1966. Here’s the countdown section only, frame by frame, followed by a video rendition of the countdown only:
4. THE PROJECTION LEADER (1999) harks back to the original Academy leader. The design is stripped down once more, without any animated elements. It was also developed by SMPTE, and is numbered 11 thru 3, spaced every 1ft (or 16 frames), placed right way up. The word SIX is placed at the bottom right of the numeral 6; the word NINE is positioned at the top right of the numeral 9. There are distinct 16mm and 35mm sound cues. Here’s the countdown section only, frame by frame, followed by a video rendition of the countdown only:
FINALLY, here is a side-by-side comparison of the first three standards described above. These are all 16mm examples, gleaned from the film archive of Mr. Craig Baldwin. From left to right: Academy; Society; Universal. Note that the upside down 6 on the Academy leader has lost its associated text ‘SIX’, suggesting over-duplication.
With particular thanks to Michael Hinton and George Willeman at the Library of Congress, and Snowden Becker (Program Manager, MIAS graduate program, UCLA).