They’re a tribalistic filmaking ritual. Even in this digital age they are still ever present, a 100 year old filmaking tradition. It also seems these days there are a gazillion slate “apps” that all ape the original concept…. two bits of wood being banged together on a board made of slate that you can write on.
The slate, as much as the camera itself, has become an icon for representing filmaking in action. Even the general public know that they’re an intrinsic part of the process.
There is of course a serious and useful purpose to slates, but that original purpose has also grown and transformed as well.
So really, let’s consider, what IS the purpose of the slate ? Well, there are two primary reasons to slate.
The first is to provide a synchronisation reference for double system sound syncing. An audible clap with a visual reference so that sync can be checked by an editor later on. When recording sound separately it’s very easy for this sound to go out of sync through the various contortions of the post production pathways. Timecode…even in 2013 seems to be inconsistently reliable. A manual sync reference is a great failsafe for sync and checking sync.
The second is as a note to editorial to show what scene the shot belongs to, if any special processes are required in transcoding, and any other miscellaneous editorial relevant info. There might also be notes to post about which LUT’s to use for example. The script supervisor also makes notes relevant to each take which flow through to editorial as well. Camera sheets will also help the loader track down equipment failures like magazines that are scratching later on as well
There are great side effects to slating that I see on set.
I like to think of slates as the filmaking version of the starters gun. It’s a countdown to the race beginning, the call of “action”. It calms and settles everyone on set down and focusses everyone’s energy into the singular event even that becomes “the take”. Actors and crew are used to the ritual of the calls and the act of slating and it’s a precious few seconds that allow actors to “drop” into character. When those calls go out the crew start to quiet and prepare for the take.
You can literally see it happen with actors as the slate comes in.
I’ve been chatting with some of my own crew and some directors about slating technique and protocol and it seems in this digital age some discipline and technique has been overlooked…. and it occurred to me that it takes a huge amount of subtle knowledge to be able to slate properly. One director was bemoaning the fact that they had to keep staring at the loader’s face on the split right before every take during an important emotional scene. They also took an interminably long time to actually announce the slate as well, totally distracting the beginning of the take. “Doesn’t anyone know how to slate ? Don’t they know how they can influence the beginning of a scene ? That they can set the tone for the actors ? Why are they taking so long to announce the slate and get out of there ? What ever happened to the discipline of the film days where you’d get the slate and only the slate in shot and get the hell out of there ???” It was a full blown rant…..
Like a butler, you need to be totally present yet not noticed. The way you speak, the manner with which you slate can greatly affect actor performance and the on set ambience. You’re also a constant visual representative of the camera department.
Let’s consider who actually sees you when you slate. For starters the director is watching, probably in the next room, anxiously hoping their note to the actor will play in the scene. The last thing they want to see is you goofing off, trying to find a camera, drawing pretty rainbows on the slate or pulling faces just before the call of action and taking an interminable amount of time to announce the slate.
So that’s just on set. Then the footage goes to editorial. Then the editing assistant has to sync it or check the sync. Then the editor will look at it. Then they’ll strike DVD’s or files for Producers.
So then the Producers will be looking at you.
Then probably some TV executives or EP’s as well.
Oh. And then the director will watch rushes and again be reminded how annoying you were the first time for pulling that face the second time around (cause you know, it was recorded).
And then they go into the edit suite and start cutting and AGAIN they look at you drawing attention to yourself.
So just bare in mind, that there’s a huge audience of senior heavies watching you, people that one day might be considering employing you, and you’re representing not only yourself but the camera department and the general mood of the set (and by extension the director)…
So I’ve been collecting and gathering slate knowledge. And I’ve been trying to come up with a slating manifesto. These might not work for you, but this is how I’d like my slating to be done. Let me know if you’ve got any other suggestions.
Like silver service you kind of need to be perfect all the time and not be noticed. You need to be aware, observant and sensitive to what’s happening in the scene itself and adjust yourself to suit. You’re doing an important job, but you need to do it discretely and not be noticed.
Here’s how to slate with class.
The Slate goes in at the very last minute. The operators are looking for issues in the frame as you run up towards a take. You standing there holding a slate in a way that means they can’t be checking for reflections, or any other compositional things they might want to look at like lighting for the lead actor. After the AD has called roll and you’ve heard the confirmation of sound speed, THEN you present the slate to camera. Not before.
Know your lenses and know how far away to stand. There are several theories, but 1’ for every 10mm of lens is a good start. That means 5’ for a 50mm or 10’ for a 100mm. Also knowing your lenses means knowing your minimum focus so you won’t be at 4’ on a 40mm that has a focus minimum of 5” will you now ?
Be Quick. I almost want to make this rule number 1. Get in say the bare minimum slate it and get out as quickly as possible without knocking anything over or causing a commotion. Don’t annunciate every single thing on the slate for example “127 – 1” instead of Shot 127 take 1. And that could be “one two seven one” or “one two seven take one” to avoid confusion about the first number.
Don’t make the operator chase you. I don’t want to have to go looking for you. I don’t want to have to move my careful pre-framed or staged shot just to get a slate, then try and remember where I was framed. Put the slate in the existing frame. Every time an operator has to move off their pre-frame to find you a kitten is killed….
Exit Strategies. You should be planning where to slate from before they call turnover. You should be planning where to stand and then how you’re going to exit. You should slate from the side you’ll be exiting camera from. Don’t cross the frame. Don’t put yourself in the frame. Some loaders like to look from behind the slate to use the filter reflection to line up the slate. None of us want to see you. Exit without disturbing the actors, the camera or lighting.
Read the scene. Make a judgement based on what’s happening around you and work out how loud you need to be with your clap and your read. If you’re on a busy street with a wide lens you’ll need to project a lot louder and towards the microphone (not the camera) than if you’re in a studio doing a discrete scene on a long lens. You don’t want a loud bang right in front of an actors face either, especially on a sensitive scene. Make sure you barely clap so you won’t disturb an actor who’s about to bare their soul, processing a note form the director or even trying to remember their lines. The last thing you want to do is interrupt the beginning of an emotional scene that is the whole critical turning point of the entire film.
Be Steady. Always drop the slate into frame with the sticks open so there is no confusion with an MOS slate. This is done so editors and assistants can find the sync point when scrubbing the footage at high speed. Where possible always use two hands to hold the slate steady especially when near the faces of actors to avoid any catastrophes. You don’t want to be known as the loader who injured THAT actor… Make sure you don’t cover any vital information with your fingers. While clapping the sticks keep the slate steady and count to one after the clap to make sure the editor can easily find the sync point. Once it has clapped don’t let it bounce open and cause any double clap confusion. If you make a mistake (which happens) call ‘second clap/second mark’ and CALMLY mark the slate again.
Keep it clean. The slate must be clear and legible. It’s meant to be readable ! Don’t use funny or fancy style fonts or drawings/jokes in the corner. It makes it difficult for people down the line in post to glance quickly and know what’s going on.
Spell it right. The most embarrassing thing is to have spelt the Director’s or DOP’s names wrong so check it and double check it again before putting it out there. Humiliation really.
Get it right. It’s YOUR job to actually have the right numbers on the slate in the first place. The script supervisor rules here and it’s best you fall into line unless you want them yelling corrections at you as you’re calling it in shot and therefore giving “bad service”. There are also several different numbering systems and every script supervisor has their own way of doing things. Do it the way they like and your life won’t be hell. Seriously. Learn their system and do it the way they like.
Let there be light but not too much. Make sure you always have a torch handy to put light on the slate in a dark scene, or when it’s a brightly lit set angle the slate down slightly to avoid reflections.
Don’t walk away with the slate. If you have to leave the set for very important jobs like making coffee for me then leave the slate next to the camera with a marker so that the production is not held up waiting for the slate to return….and my coffee.
Don’t walk away with the slate. When shooting multi-camera it’s great to try and get a common slate but don’t get caught trying to make it happen, if you need two separate slates then do two separate slates. This is a common mistake when shooting a wide shot at the same time as close up, remember there’s no point putting a slate on if the editor can’t see what’s on it. Also announce each camera as you mark it. “A” mark and “B” mark for example.
For slates that aren’t the norm.
I love tail slates though continuity and editors hate them. I like them because it means I can pre-roll into a scene. I make it a habit to roll a few seconds at least before the actual call of turnover as I ALWAYS get shots that get used in the cut of an actor doing their thing in the run up to a take. A slate often ruins my “stolen” shots so I’ll often ask for a tail on my camera.
For tail slates make sure that you identify by calling the numbers at the head of the scene and make sure you call out when the director calls cut so that camera and sound don’t cut before your slate is in there. At the end of the take drop the slate into frame upside down to mark and then turn right way up so that editorial can see the numbers. Make sure you come up with a suitable punishment system for operators like me who always forget and cut before the tail slate comes in.
It’s a classic loader mistake to yell for a tail slate thinking the scene is over, but when the director hasn’t actually called cut. Another sure fire way to earn the ire of any director is to run into the scene in the middle of a take with a tail slate !
For MOS to avoid confusion make sure your fingers are in between the sticks to identify there will be no mark and hold steady in the frame.
Always talk to to the script supervisor. Make sure that what your slate says matches what the continuity notes say. What the continuity person says goes, traditionally they are a representative of the editing department so it’s their call.
Here’s a final note….watch this amusing compilation of slates from Inglorious Basterds. Although hilarious, it perfectly illustrates WHY YOU SHOULDN’T slate like this. Notice how often it *infects* the actors as she comically announces the late ? Notice how the actors are often in character but are distracted or comment on the slate ? That’s a no no in my book.
Only made possible with the awesome informal input of several directors, post supervisors script supervisors and especially my long suffering focus pullers and loaders, Jessica Clarke-Nash, Jade Court-Gold, Cam Gaze and Grant Sweetnam. You’ve all taught me how to slate like a butler.