Few people know what all those things on a movie slate are for. Even fewer know the proper way to slate for camera properly. It's the job of the 2nd AC (Second Assistant Camera, or sometimes referred to as Clapper Loader) to write out the slate and be the person who holds it in front of the camera before each take. It's an iconic job on a movie set, being the person who makes the loud SNAP right before the director calls action. However there are actually some important tips to know about slating in order to do it properly. Often you can impress the rest of the crew when you show you already know how to slate like a pro.
Keep in mind that there isn't necessarily one "right" way to call slate, but this is the way I've gotten used to seeing slate happen on sets. Sometimes the order changes, and some terms may be called out differently.
Step 1: Filling out the slate
The slate holds all of the information that the editor will need to identify which take was which part of the script and also to sync up video with audio later to the sound of the CLAP. It is unbelievably integral for many reasons, which you can see in an earlier post. Use chalk or dry erase marker (whichever's applicable) and write in the following:
- Production Name obviously!
- Director and DoP Names (do not misspell these! Go off of the call sheet, or even better, ask how they would prefer it spelled. Sometimes they want a nickname there instead)
- Current Date
- Scene number
- Take number
- Roll number/letter
Name of the production, director and DoP are self-explanatory and don't really change. The date obviously needs to be kept current. The scene, take and roll numbers are what you need to stay on top of.
Check with the script supervisor if you need to know which scene you're on, often it'll be called out so pay attention. If it's Scene 42 in the script, then you first write in 42A (the first shot "A" of Scene "42"). Then whenever it is a new camera setup, you advance it by one letter. A new camera setup means a new camera angle, framing, position, etc. So if the wide shot is slated as Scene 42A, then the medium shot will be slated Scene 42B, and the close-up as Scene 42C, and so on. If the camera setup doesn't change at all, then you're just doing another take and so just advance the Take number.
The Roll number used to denote what film roll each camera was on. Nowadays with most productions being digital, it means which memory card you are on. Whenever a new card is loaded into the camera, you advance the Roll number. Each camera gets assigned a letter at the start of production (for multi-camera productions, Camera A, Camera B, etc.) and so you should include the camera letter before each roll number. So if you're using two cameras, you might write for Roll "A023, B016". This would indicate that Camera A is recording to its 23rd memory card and Camera B is on its 16th card. This way the editor knows which card folder each take is in on the hard drive.
Step 2: Getting the slate in position for camera
When the AD calls "Slate!", that means you. Better have that slate filled in and ready to go because you're up. The camera operator will not roll camera until the slate is in position, so you need to jump in there. This is to ensure that the first frame of each take has the slate clearly visible. That way the editor can browse through the thumbnails of each take and know right away which shot it is without having to play through each one. It makes their job a million times easier, therefore earning you a friend for life.
Where specifically should the slate be? Pay attention to the lens being used. If it's a wide angle lens, you can stand closer to camera. If it's zoomed in for a close-up, you should be near whatever the subject is. If this is Brad Pitt's close-up for an emotional scene, the slate should be near his pretty face. Ideally the slate should fill the screen as much as possible and be in focus enough to read it easily.
By the way, is there audio recording for this take? Then the sticks should already be open so that the editor knows there is an audio track to go with it. If there isn't? Then keep the sticks closed and don't clap them at all. Oh, and write MOS on the slate, if you can. (Tip: MOS is said to stand for "mit out sound" as a 1920's German director may have said once, but it most likely stands for "motor only sync". Really, it just means there is no sound being recorded. That's all you need to know.)
Step 3: Reading off the slate
When the actors and crew are ready and the AD wants to get shooting, a bunch of crew members call out some words to indicate they're ready to go. Pay attention to the order so that you know when to do what. This is what varies from set-to-set but usually it goes something like this:
- The AD calls for everybody to settle and shouts "Roll Camera!"
- The 1st AC or Camera Operator rolls camera and calls "Camera Rolling!" and the Boom Operator or Production Sound calls "Speed!" meaning he/she is now recording. Once you hear both of these get shouted, you can then finally...
- Slate for Camera! Read off the Scene number, Take number, say "Mark!" and then CLAP the slate. Want to really sound like a pro? Use the NATO phonetic alphabet for the Scene letter (alpha, beta, charlie, delta...). If the slate is close to Brad Pitt's face or the boom is close to it, then audio department may call "Soft sticks" meaning you can close it gently. No need to be loud. Otherwise, snap the hell out of it. If audio doesn't pick it up, they may call "Second sticks" meaning you need to re-slate. Just quickly say "Second sticks", and snap the slate properly. Then what do you do?...
- Get the hell out of the way! Quickly and quietly. You've done your job, now you're all that's standing in the Director's way of calling "Action!". *sigh* Great, you can now relax and watch the actors perform, enjoying their performances...
- But wait! There's more! Rather than get caught up in what the actors are doing, you should opt to wait to see it on the DVD and instead be filling in the slate for the next shot. Wipe out the Take number, write in a new one.
And that's pretty much it! It's not rocket science but few people know how to slate properly for the camera. If it's not being done right, it might as well not be done at all. After all, this is to help the editor not have a meltdown while searching through dozens upon dozens (or more!) clips for each scene. Often an overlooked and undervalued job on set, knowing how to slate can be amazingly helpful and make you look good in front of other crew members.