Slating like a Butler

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Slates….

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.

About johnbrawley

Director Of Photography striving to create compelling images
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20 Responses to Slating like a Butler

  1. Benjamin Cunningham says:

    …… I’m not the most experienced loader, nor was I the best (not a loader anymore) but I can add something to John’s advice. John is very right about the relationship a loader must have with the Script Supervisor and their protocol – it’s true they can make your life hell if you don’t fall into line with their system. My advice would be to try to establish a good relationship with the Script Supervisor, although I don’t think it needs to be a subservient one necessarily. The best experiences I had working on set were with crews whom I believe had respect for each other and each others role – including the loader. I guess I just mean its nice to establish a good relationship and agree on a system early on with the script supervisor. While they can certainly make your life very difficult they can also help you a great deal when the pressure is on and you might need their discreet help..

    Although its true that establishing a good relationship with all crew is both important and helpful, I found during my time as a loader that in addition to the Script supervisor it is particularly helpful to work with the boom operator with regards to the slating of a take – particularly if they are more experienced than you are. They’ll help with with cues for tail slates and even help be more discreet with calling the slate by swinging their boom close to you for the slate. I worked with a really great boom operator on a very intensive two camera shoot and I can honestly say that I learned more about slating from him than anyone else on set, including the camera department.

    That brings me to my final addition which I understand could be a little controversial in a highly hierarchal industry. This one is aimed at those on set, other than the loader, if there are any reading.
    While John has written some very sound and important advice to loaders wanting to learn proper ‘Butler Style’ loading technique he also reminded me of just how bottom rung and subservient you feel on set when working as a loader. I remember the first few time I was on set just how nervous I was about slating correctly. I really did feel like I was in the spotlight when I had to walk out into the middle of set and slate the shot…. Was I in the right place? Was I talking loud enough for the boom across the room to hear me? Was I too loud? Would I know when to start calling numbers? and when to clap the slate shut?
    Of course the answers to these questions all seem obvious, but as John has pointed out they are far from obvious at times and very few loaders get it right from the get go, if any.
    I worked with more than one director that had very little consistency in regards to their role in the on set process. Sometimes they’d call action, sometimes they wouldn’t….. a bit of a pause and the 1st would quickly shout action and the scene would begin. 8 times out of ten no ‘Cut’ would be called at the end of a take…. inevitably leading to the poor loader jumping in or shouting ‘Tail Slate’ when the scene seemed finished but wasn’t :(
    Operators all work differently too. Some will call ‘Mark it’ when the slate was in frame and ready for clapping, others would not. Some would pan across the room to try to achieve a common slate when the intention of the loader was to mark the cameras separately.
    I guess all I’m trying to say is that although at the end of the day a slate is just a slate there re myriad ways of getting it ‘wrong’ and as John has indicated they can have a more than subtle effect on the resulting take. Ultimately it is the job of the loader to get it right but I do think it is important for others on set who have an influence on how well the loader is able to read the cues and ‘get it right’ to help the loader by being aware of the part they play in the process. It is the loader who looks the fool when it goes bad and it is not always their doing…
    If you’re on set and able to help a new loader with a few cues, or by simply playing your part in the process properly then they’l for sure be able to do their job better. :)
    Ben

    • johnbrawley says:

      Hi Ben. Thanks so much for the thoughtful and awesome feedback. You’re totally right of course and that loaders in their job are often having to be “wrong” even when they’ve done the right thing. It’s the unfortunate nature of a film set. I always marvelled that both focus pullers and loaders are only noticed when something goes wrong. No one really notices them when everything is going well !

      I guess with a team that has worked together you also get to know how people will work hopefully avoid the miscommunication issues. Every “new” set will have it’s own challenges of new operators, 1st ACs and of course script supervisors. Maybe it’s worth devising a checklist of things to determine BEFORE you call the first slate about how everyone likes to work.

      jb

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  3. PiDstr says:

    I’d argue with only one point,..
    “After the AD has called roll and you’ve heard the confirmation of sound speed, THEN you present the slate to camera. Not before.”

    In my experience *, on the more professionally run sets, with properly competent 1AD’s, the AD will call ‘Slate In’, then pause to wait for a nod from the camera dept to acknowledge the slate is correctly presented, and will then call ‘Roll camera – Roll sound’, again a wait for the ‘Speed’ calls, and then call ‘Mark It’.

    All done so that the first thing seen on screen by all the post production people is the slate, so that every single take is easily identifiable from the vision, rather then relying on the meta-data to be correct.
    Though I’m sure the practice originates from wanting to prevent wasted feet of film stock.

    * I’ll admit ‘limited’ – I’m used to live broadcast and corporate gigs more then film sets

    • johnbrawley says:

      Couple of things. Perhaps it’s a regional thing but no 1s AD I’ve ever worked with has ever asked for the slate to come in.

      Normally the first will call for sound and once the sound department announce speed then the slate goes in.

      Once the slate is presented THEN the camera is rolled autonomously by the 1st AC. This ensures the first frame of the clip is of the slate and also ensures that any thumbnails in post will also hopefully be of the slate. So this still works for making sure the first frame of camera roll is the slate, but the call might have even happened before the slate is offered up.

      It’s also an important point to remember for loaders. Nothing will happen until you actually present the slate to the camera. Look around. If people aren’t ready then you’re kind of in control because you have the slate !

      jb

      • Jacob Osborn says:

        Yeah, I’ve never had an AD call for slate. So, once I’ve made sure my 1st and DP don’t need anything from me, I grab it and stand off ready to go at a moment’s notice. I’ve worked with some directors and ADs who completely forget the slate even exists.

        And I can’t count how many times this has been true: “If people aren’t ready then you’re kind of in control because you have the slate!” That’s when I let my silent demeanor and ticking time-code do the talking.

  4. markus schindler says:

    Good article!

    There are only two points missing I think:

    #1: Hold the slate as close toward the lens as possible (refer to the distance theories of John)
    to have it “full-frame” readable. This wasn’t only helpful back in film days to quickly see
    which scene you have in front of you on your tiny 16mm strip, it is kind of the same
    with small icon-privisualisation in your digital folders.

    #2: And to make sure that #1 won’t make the operator or focus puller have to shout “higher”,
    “deeper”, “left”, “right” or “whatsoever” at the moment where you actually clap the slate
    you dutch it, that way you’ll never be out of frame in the most important moment.!

    that’s at least the way I work, but I don’t think that’s the “one way” of shooting film.
    there’s so many ways and I respect each of them.

    It would be also interesting John to talk about “what is still important to be written down
    on a slate” in combination with the existence of meta-data, as well as the missing
    film processing, for example -> day, nite, int, ext and so on.
    And if “time-code slates are a good thing to have, or make it so much more
    complicated”!

    best regards from shooting in brazil,

    markus

    • johnbrawley says:

      Hi Marcus and thanks for taking the time to comment. I did consider talking about slating techniques and covering what actually get’s written on the slate, but that seem to be a much wider conversation. i really wanted to focus on what it is to actually operate the slate and how slating can actually influence performance from the actors and the director on set.

      jb

      • markus schindler says:

        Hi John,

        the point “how slating can effect the mood of the scene” is a really good point. I experienced excatly that thing a lot. Sometimes when everyone is running around madly, for example party scenes with a noisy crowd, you slam it with a loud self-esteem gesture to tell everybody ok now hold on we’re shooting now, concentration! but on the other end you take your time with a gentle whispering voice to start an emotional scene, without hurry you clap really quite and let the actors and everybody have a deep breath before the scene starts. and as soon as I started focus pulling about one year ago I also really became a fan of tail slates, exactly for the same reasons you mentioned above, pre-roll, pre-focus, pre-concentration and so on!

        one last advice:

        I use small sticks, without the board for quite and close-up scenes, that way I don’t have to cover the actors whole face with my slate which feels always kind of disrespectful I think.

        to end up my comment, can you please list up some good punishment ideas for an early cut without tailslate? electro shocks on the run button?

        best regards

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  6. Lorenzo says:

    Great read, John. Now I know what to look for from slate. I agree with you on, The Inglorious Bastards link. That kind of slating is so distracting.

  7. K E says:

    Do complete review of BM 4K

  8. John Bauer says:

    Great article John! I work as a 2nd AC in Germany and while most of this should be known by all Loaders it was still a very valuable read.
    Slating looks so easy and yet it can be really tricky sometimes and took me some time to learn and I’m still trying to master it.

    I’d like to add a few thinks from my experience:

    Talk to you team. Especially operators. Your goal should always be to place your slate in the preframed shot but let’s face it it’s not always possible or could bring you in some trouble. Therefore try to see if it’s a complicated shot for the operator and if not ask kindle if he could “grab” the slate from you. In my experience most operators will help you out in these situations.

    Think about your 1.AC too. I work with one who prefers the follow focus. Mostly zooms tend to have a very long focus through on the closer range. So let’s say the focus of the scene is at around 7-10m but you put the slate in at 1.5m for perfect visibility the 1 AC will have to move the focus wheel a lot to get to see slate and after slating back to the scene. These guys work their wrists enough already… And I think in the age of HD we can afford to have the slate not full frame.

    Thanks for all your great articles John!

  9. John Bauer says:

    One more thing… I know some guys who worked at the camera dept. for Inglorious Bastards and they told me about the clapper girl. They said she was actually chosen by the director to have a pretty face in front of the camera… She was only doing the slates and nothing else but they didn’t get an extra loader.

  10. Hi JB,

    A trainee AC just forwarded your blog post on slating to me. It was a thoroughly enjoyable read, and I’m pretty sure I did all of those things and worse when I started out. It certainly would have helped to have it all explained like this during my time as a videosplit (and saved me a lot of embarrassment and stress).

    I’m doing a bit of new-blood training now that I’m only ACing between other adventures, and I’ve noticed videosplit ops and trainees can get very frustrated when they’re learning to slate. There’s a million and one instructions coming their way, all seemingly contradicting each other – slate close to the lens, but don’t make the focuspuller rack too far; line up the slate placement using the camera’s rods but keep your head out of shot etc etc… I tell my videosplits that, let’s face it – loading sucks. Everyone will have an opinion and feel the need to share it with you. You’re never going to please all of them all the time. The key is being able to sense the mood on set at the time and judge when you have to be extra discreet, when it’s ok to goof off with the actors (I do enjoy being free to goof off with the cast while slating, but always wait for them to initiate it), and when you’re just gonna have to shout out ‘tailslate’ and hope that the director has, in fact, forgotten to call ‘cut’ again. When in doubt, please the person who hired you!

    I don’t think there’s a problem with the odd slate gimmick (martini glasses on the final shot is a personal favourite) as long as it is a light-hearted scene and the cast and director are relaxed. I agree that the slate is not your personal whiteboard, and there’s nothing more annoying than someone on the crew giggling after slate 69 during a very emotionally heavy scene.

    Anyway, those are my thoughts, interesting article.

    Dools

    • johnbrawley says:

      Hi Caitlin,

      Thanks for the thoughtful and detailed response !

      I do think that sensing the mood is the key. It’s about the demeanour and tone of the set. I guess that was my perspective when I started thinking about it… How is it that the slate technique can affect the tone on the set ? I wasn’t really trying to write a “how to” though…I’m the last person to ask !!

      Thanks again !

      jb

  11. Darius says:

    It looks hella slick on the AC’s part when the editor loads up all the thumbnails and the first frame contains the clapper.

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  13. James says:

    I work in video, uh corporate communications. Whatever we call it now a days.

    When doing countdowns for talent, I use the same idea. If they need to slow down, my countdown slows down. If they need to read happier, there is a smile in my voice and maybe a joke before.
    Helping talent, and non talent, get or stay in the right mood for the take is sometimes half the battle.

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