Although it’s now obsolete with the advent of digital cinema, during the filmic era, which comprised most of the 20th century since the inception of the cinema, academy leader “countdowns” were part of every film, usually on every 1000′ reel of a 35mm film print. The leader would count down the final ten seconds of leader before the first image appeared on the screen, ending with a “beep” at the 2 second mark, alerting projectionists when to switch from one reel to the next.
Before the advent of digital projection, working in a projection booth was a very labor intensive affair; even with two 1000′ (ten minute} 35mm reels spliced together into a 2000′, twenty-minute section, the most footage a standard 35mm projector of the era would hold, that gave the projectionist just 20 minutes to load up the next 2000′ section on the second projector, set up the automatic changeover so that the film would be screened without an interruption, and to keep on doing this all day long.
With the introduction of “platter” projection in the 1990s, an entire 35mm film could be spliced together a huge platter in an endless loop, and run through a 35mm projector without a break, but one still had to monitor the process very closely, as 35mm film could often get tangled, or ripped, and projection remained a very delicate job.
Of course, we’re only talking about so-called “safety film” here – this doesn’t even begin to take into account the perils of projecting cellulose nitrate film, the standard for 35mm projection before 1950, which was best described as “eagerly” flammable, and projection booth fires with films from the 1890s up through the early 1950s were a regular occurrence when film got jammed in the projector gate.
In any event, since countdown leader was a part of every film of the “filmic” era, in many cases, the labs that prepared the prints would prepare their own individual leaders, such as this one for the Italian film Il Sorpasso. As Criterion archivist Phoebe Harmon writes, “as a restoration artist, I am often responsible for the initial assembly of a film. This means putting all the reels together and removing each reel’s heads and tails (also known as leader).
I always find it interesting to see what’s on the leader. For instance, the ‘China girls,’ [also known as China dolls] which are images (usually of women) that were historically used to calibrate color, can clue you in to when a movie was made—based on the style of their clothes, hair, and makeup—and the countdowns are always different.
I was assembling 1962’s Il sorpasso [directed by Dino Risi] in November 2013 when I saw the beep. The design is aesthetically brilliant, and I love that it comes from a time when nothing was digital; someone actually made that by hand. All the elements on leaders are functional. They are not meant to be seen by the consumer. So this beep is like a little message coming through history, sent from behind the scenes to projectionists and technicians of the future.
There is no reason it needs to look so cool, but it does. It’s a nice reminder that film, at its heart, is truly an art; even though the way it’s created (and preserved!) can be very technical, all of us who work on a film get to be a part of a collaborative creative process.”