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Ever wonder when you are watching a film or television show be made and you see someone with a giant board going in front of the camera and screaming “ACTION!” To the non-filmmakers and to the ones that are just getting interested in film, the word that you are looking for is a slate. Or clapperboard. Or clapper. It has a lot of names, actually.
The slate is used in filmmaking to assist in synchronizing picture and sound, and to designate and mark the various scenes and takes as they are filmed and audio-recorded.
The slate has been essential to filmmaking since the earliest days of sound film. Visual and audio tracks were recorded on separate media by separate equipment, and are still recorded separately to this day, unless one records with the mic and the camera.
The slate was invented by F. W. Thring, an Australian film director, and producer. It is disputed as to when the clapper was first used in a film, with some saying as early as the year 1906.
Here is how the slate works. The slate displays the name of the production, the scene and take about to be performed, and similar information such as the director’s name, the date, the name of the DP (director of photography), and whether the shot is taking place during the day or night, and whether it is filmed indoors or outdoors.
Some portions of the slate are different around the world. The American slate consists of the scene information with the scene number, camera angle, and take amount; e.g., Scene 24, C, Take 3. The European slate will have the scene number and take amount with the letter of the camera shooting the slate if using a multiple-camera setup; e.g., Slate 256, Take 3C.
Usually, its that Assistant Camera, or AC for short, that will hold the slate so that it is in view of the camera. They will then speak out the information for the benefit of the audio recording, then opens the clapstick and claps it shut. The shutting of the clapstick is easily identified on the visual track, and the sharp clap noise is easily detected on the separate audio track. If the clapstick is soft or doesn’t hit loud enough, the AC states “second sticks” and then claps it again.
The two records can be synchronized by matching the sound and movement. Since each take is identified on both the visual and audio tracks, segments of the film are easily paired with portions of audio.
Early clapboards were built from wooden chalkboards with hinged clapsticks mounted to the top. The clapboard only contained three sources of information: the location, the scene, and the take. Today’s clapboard is the white acrylic types with much more information on it. Productions with larger budgets used a digital clapper like the ones seen below.
There are also other ways to identify your shot. A voice slate, the verbal identification of the numbers, occurs after the sound has reached speed. At that time the camera will start running, and the clapperboard is then filmed briefly at the start of the take, and the clapsticks are clapped sharply as soon as the camera has reached sync speed.
Often, instead of preparing an original slate, a voice slate will be identified by the actor in the scene who will announce the information and then clap their hands together to provide the synchronization mark.
Sometimes a tail slate, or end slate, is filmed at the end of a take during which the clapperboard is held upside down. This is done when the slate was not captured at the beginning of the catch due to the camera being shot in such a way that the board cannot be captured.
Clapperboards are used to identify all takes of production, even when you don’t need synchronization. This is important during MOS shots, or motor only shots where no audio is synchronized. When a slate is used to mark a MOS take, the slate is held half open with the hands blocking the sticks or closed with the hands over the sticks.
With all of this info about clapperboards, you’re probably thinking of obtaining one of your own to practice for your filmmaking. While looking up slates, I found that prices for them are reasonable! You can purchase slates off of Amazon for about $14 or Vistaprint for $2! If you want an actual high-tech slate, B&H Photo and Video have slates that range from $30 to almost $300.
Remember that you don’t have to break the bank when marking your film. Write the information down on a notecard and clap in front of the camera. That’s what director Sean Baker has done for his ultra low-budget films.
See how the slate works by watching this video:
I hope that this article will help answer the question of “why is this man screaming action all of the time during filming?”
Daniel Zuaro is a graduate of Buffalo State College with a Bachelor of Arts in Media Production with a minor in Film Studies. He has always loved studying film. He wishes to pursue a career in which he can write about film or even teach about film and its history. He is a Long Island native who loves music, spending time with family and friends, food, and his cat Harvey Milk.