On old school filmstrips, why does the countdown show 5, 4, 3, 2 but never the 1?

This has been nagging at me for thirty years- I probably saw 100 of these in school as a kid, and while I think the beginning number varied, it always stopped at two, never showing the one. Why is that? Is it similar to the reason there isn’t a channel one on TV?

It’s so that you don’t get the “1” flashing up if they cut to that reel a little early. Where the “1” would be you just get some black screen.

I would guess this is because the countdown numbers are for the benefit of the projectionist, not the audience, so the last one isn’t shown in case he’s a bit quick off the mark.

Similar to this is the countdowns to going on air in TV studios - they give a verbal countdown, except the last (I think)three seconds are counted silently with only a show of fingers (although this might also be to reinforce the general sense of hush)

I was going to mention the scene in Wayne’s World about this:

Terry: “The cue is – watch carefully – Five, four, three…” [gestures two and one with fingers]

Wayne: “You didn’t say two or one.”

Terry: “You don’t say two or one.”

Wayne: “Why not?”

Terry: “You just don’t, OK?”

What he said. See also: Film leader

Basically, the machines used in broadcasting need some time to get to speed. The countdown gives them a pre-measured time interval that can be used to cue the film to. 2-3 seconds before the film element is needed, the technical director can start the projector and the projector will be up to speed when the film element is called for and switched to.

The numbers also provide a visual clue that the film element is cued and ready to be called.

It sounds a bit like the way a good drummer will count in the beat during a recording session. Instead of “1 … 2 … 1, 2, 3, 4” (usually bashing the sticks together), he’ll omit the “4” or the “3, 4” part, and the band will count the rest mentally. That’s in order to stop the sound of the sticks bleeding onto the beginning of the recording.

Right, but he’s asking about filmstrips, which are typically manually fed through a projector. I remember the same thing, and wondering for the same reason.

With a film, I understand. But the countdown on a film strip? Make no sense to me.

Speculation follows, as I am not in the film industry:

Back in the old days, audio and visual were recorded seperately during the soundstage… err… stage of the process. The old cameras just recorded silent visual recording of the action, and another device captured the sound (through the boom mics).

The film leader is created with a visual countdown cue, so that the sound editors can sync the sound track with the begining of the movie (and also sync’ed to when the actors lips are moving, further on in the film). This may be why, sometimes, someone goofs and you see lips moving, but hear no words (or vice versa).

But filmstrips don’t need that sort of synchronization, since they usually give the beep to advance. I suppose a ‘countdown’ might be useful to indicate when to press play on the tape (edit: or drop the needle), but no reason for it to skip the ‘1’. A single frame that says ‘press play now’ would have worked (I think I’ve seen that as well).

I assume it was merely done out of tradition, or to make it feel more like a film. Probably they just felt weird putting a ‘1’ on there. Or even better, the graphic simply didn’t exist, so why bother creating one?

I think the OP meant to say films and not filmstrips.

A filmstrip is just a roll of film with individual slides on it which may or may not be synchronized with an audio recording. There is no countdown on a filmstrip. Usually the first frame was colored green and said “HEAD” and the last frame was red and said “TAIL” to prevent you from putting it in the projector backwards.

The HEAD frame was followed by several black frames, then the start of the content.

Back to the question about why the countdown doesn’t show the last 2 seconds.

When the projectionist cues up the film, he runs it to the end of the visible count and stops the projector. Then, when it’s time to show the film he starts the projector, and there is 1-2 seconds of black to allow the film to get up to speed before the actual content starts.

I think that’s an assumption, and I have seen filmstrips with the countdown numbers that did exactly what the OP is talking about.

Sorry if the term I used was wrong, I was using this definition of filmstrip- the little spools with film you saw on a projector in elem. school.

I used to run the film series at my college. We’d project 16mm prints. We’d have 1 projector running, then I’d cue the other projector up in the booth. Get it to just past the 3 on the leader. As 1 reel would come to the end, I’d be ready on the other projector. There’d be two “cigarette burns” on the corner of the film… first one to get ready, 2nd (10 secs later) was the cue to start up the 2nd projector and hit the switch that turned the first lamp off and the 2nd lamp on.

In real movie theaters they splice together the 5-6 reels before sreening a movie using giant film platters. We used the old school method. And yes, the missing two #s are in case I timed the switch incorrectly, there would be a brief moment of black, but no distracting #s on the leader.

Quick aside… there’s also a “Two pop” (no relation to Tupac) which is where they put a quick beep sound on the tape that you synch up with the 2 on the leader, to ensure your film and audio are in synch. Used in edit rooms to match it all up.

It’s been a while since I’ve been in film school, but to the best of my memory there is only one frame for the 2 on the universal leader and this is where you hear the beep, thus ensuring that the picture and sound are in sync. Wild ass guess, since the sound trails the film a little bit I think the 1 and the full second 2 were taken out to prevent editors from confusedly synching the beep with end of the 1.

The correct procedure for switching from one projector to the other is to run the film in the “new” projector to where the 8 second piece of the Universal Leader is entering the gate. When you see the first cue dot (from the “old”, running out projector) on the screen you start the “new” projector. Eight seconds later the second cue dot appears. That’s when you hit the shutter control which closes the light to the gate of the projector that is just running out and simultaneously opens the shutter on the new projector. Done corectly the audience never sees a thing.

This is from several years of experience of running the projection booth in a theater in the 70’s before the advent of the platter system in use everywhere today.

If that’s what you’re talking about then it’s very unlikely that there was a countdown, because a film strip is a still presentation accompanied by a separate audiotape track (with the “beeps” to tell you when to advance to the next still image).

You might be confusing filmstrips and short films (which did have the countdown) from your schooldays.

Right- definitely short films, sorry.

Except that once a given audience member (like, say, me) knows about the system, then they can’t help but see the cue spots, and then the slightest mistiming is jarringly apparent. Even on the platter system I see a lot of cue spots.

That must be true. I explained all this to a friend once who said that she had never noticed the cue dots before but now she never missed them.

They appear on four sequential frames in each instance. Because they are round, they will appear as ovals on the screen when the film is anamorphic, or widescreen, because the projector lense expands the image horizontally.

There must be some theaters somewhere that still employ the old projector switch system I described. Otherwise, with the platter system, cue dots would be extinct.

For DVDs they are either digitally removed or the DVD transfer is produced from materials which never had the cue dots.


“Five.” BEEP!
“Four.” BEEP!
“Three.” BEEP!
“Two.” BEEP!

I’ve NEVER seen a filmstrip with a countdown.