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UCLA Film & Television Archive hosts talk highlighting impacts of ‘China Girl’

Sometimes also referred to as “China Doll” or “Girl Head,” the “China Girl” is a reference image used to standardize a film’s technical qualities. The image is commonly portrayed by a white woman dressed in traditional Chinese clothing. (Courtesy of Genevieve Yue)

By Eden Yeh

April 21, 2022 11:40 p.m.

An uncredited figure in film history will be turning heads this Friday.

The UCLA Film & Television Archive will be hosting an Archive Talk titled “Girl Head: Feminism and Film Materiality with Genevieve Yue” in the Billy Wilder Theater with a book signing of Yue’s work “Girl Head: Feminism and Film Materiality.” The program will explore the “China Girl,” a reference image used to standardize a film’s technical qualities like exposure and color balance, in the context of experimental films. Yue said the China Girl’s ubiquitous yet overlooked presence prompted her interest in furthering research into the image.

“Immediately, I found no answers in any official literature on film history,” Yue said. “There’s not a whole lot in film scholarship that addresses technical aspects of production history.”

Yue’s interest in the China Girl – also called “China Doll” or “Girl Head” – piqued after watching filmmaker Morgan Fisher’s 1984 film “Standard Gauge” and film preservationist Mark Toscano’s 2012 film “Releasing Human Energies,” which explore the China Girl as a reference image used in film laboratories beginning in the 1920s, she said. Although the China Girl, often portrayed by a white woman dressed in traditional Chinese clothing, is used to determine technical aspects, the influence of the reference image can be seen in a film’s final product in front of audiences.

The China Girl is observable far past a film’s production stage and can find its way in an analog film screening if the projectionist fails to turn the reel over at a specific time, Yue said. The brief glimpse of the China Girl goes unnoticed to most audiences, and the lack of preexisting research on the reference image made uncovering the China Girl’s background a novel process, she said.

“I had to rely on instruments and procedures the China Girl was associated with, namely exposure and quality control methods in the film laboratory, and (I) gleaned from that the emergence of a practice of using this image of a woman,” Yue said.

[Related: UCLA Film & Television Archive to showcase digital films of James Benning]

From the technical perspective, Yue said her research into the densitometer, an instrument that measures a film’s density, was also helpful in hypothesizing how the China Girl served as a quality control tool. The discussion of the densitometer in technical literature provided evidence for the China Girl’s role as a reference image for a densitometer to calibrate itself against, Yue said.

With a background in the technical aspects of moviemaking, Fisher said “Standard Gauge” explores the historical and technical sides to the China Girl based on film strips he collected as an editor in the film industry. His commentary on examples of the China Girl provides a detailed perspective on the reference image, while the film’s title “Standard Gauge” alludes to the name of 35 mm film used in commercial motion picture production, Fisher said.

“It’s the kind of material that you came across in 35 (mm film), at least in the old days,” Fisher said. “There’s one China Girl that is the most frequently encountered, but she’s not the only one.”

In working with 16 mm and 35 mm film, Fisher said the China Girl that is most frequently encountered is a motion picture scene rather than a still image. The China Girl’s blinking eye movements can be seen in these brief moments, especially in avant-garde films that are experimental in nature, he said.

[Related: Film experts discuss Black experience, history in entertainment industry]

In addition to Fisher’s film editing background, the Archive Talk will draw upon Toscano’s perspective as a film preservationist. Toscano said he first saw the China Girl after coming across a minutes-long, uninterrupted reel of the China Girl blinking, an unusual find given its length. After meeting Yue at a Getty Research Institute event, Toscano said her fascination in the reel initiated their shared interest in uncovering the reference image’s overlooked importance in behind-the-scenes filmmaking.

“I hope they (the audience) appreciate and find meaning in the dimension of it (the China Girl) that’s really about the invisible manipulations inherent to capitalism and to any kind of management-labor situation,” Toscano said. “The power dynamics in play are really invisible here.”

Inspired by an essay of the same name, “Releasing Human Energies” discusses the China Girl’s overlooked contributions to filmmaking in the context of hidden labor, Toscano said. In drawing from the essay’s analysis of manipulative strategies in capitalistic structures, Toscano said the China Girl reflects similar imbalances in film history, including in the name of the reference image itself.

(Courtesy of Marc Toscano)
Film preservationist Mark Toscano’s 2012 film “Releasing Human Energies,” explores the usage of the China Girl in film laboratories. The film will be screened at an Archive Talk hosted by the UCLA Film & Television Archive. (Courtesy of Marc Toscano)

By highlighting the China Girl as a critical yet overlooked part of film history and technique, Yue said she hopes audiences will reevaluate assumptions of industry-produced images and appreciate the cultural and social significance that these images pose. In doing so, Yue said audiences will find the nuanced history of behind-the-scenes work that has often gone unrecognized.

“It’s not something that necessarily rises to the level of awareness, or fully conscious awareness even when you do see it,” Yue said. “That’s one of the things I’m interested in too, is this liminal attention that one gives to a figure like this – that it’s present but, in a way, you’re so conditioned not to see it.”

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