Is any piece of film gear more iconic than the slate? Most essentially, it establishes a common sync point for picture and sound, but it also carries organizational metadata that simplifies post production. It also acts as a signal during production that a shot is in process, allows various departments to verify what is being shot, and makes everyone involved feel like they’re making a real movie.
The frame where the sticks close matches the accompanying spike in the waveform of the audio file. This is quite helpful when recording sound and picture to separate devices in a ‘dual system’. In a a “smart” slate, or simply be the closing of the sticks on a slate with no electronic timecode readout. Newer digital slates can also quickly display a host of metadata information quickly and be used as logging tools for post. It seems like something that should have been replaced long ago, but it’s tough to get the industry to change its beloved slate.
The very first frame of every head slated shot should include the slate filling the view, sticks open. This makes for easier post production.
Again, the script supervisor is your guide here, but a quick refresher on scene numbers: In the United States, the first “setup” of every scene is slated with the scene number. When you change focal length or camera position, it’s the letter that changes. For example: Scene 12 would be your first setup. Then 12A, 12B, etc. If a given scene puts you past the end of the alphabet start again with 12AA. Remember, however, shooting order is usually different than scene order. Don’t forget to increment the take number.
Timecode is one of the most important pieces of metadata carried by the slate.
There’s more depth on this in the technical timecode section, but we’ll cover the gist here. Timecode is used for various things, but for the purposes of audio, it’s basically a universal clock. Sure you can record video and audio separately and then manually sync them in post, but there’s an easier way: If every recording device, cameras, audio recorders, etc. had an internal clock which was reasonably accurate, then all the devices could be set to the correct time and left to run. Then in post, all one has to do is tell software to look at the timecode time and line everything up automatically. This means you pick one device containing your master timecode and “jam sync” or just “jam” the other devices to it. A common approach is to use your audio field recorder’s internal clock and jam all the cameras to it. Depending on how accurate the cameras’ internal clocks are, you may be able to leave them running all day. The reality is most cameras, even high-end ones, drift substantially. This means they need to be re-jammed at lunch break. The smart slate can also be used to jam, not just to receive sync. Alternatively, you leave a small, accurate clock (e.g. LockIt or Tentacle) stuck on the camera, feeding it the correct time all day.
A “Smart Slate” is slate with an electronic digital timecode readout. Again, you’ll “jam” this slate from the field recording device’s crystal-synched clock. Every time the clappers hit, the timecode freezes and you get a visual verification of where the sound recording device is for dual system audio. A “Dumb Slate” does little more than give you a visual for readout of scene and take numbers. This isn’t terribly far from just clapping and using the hit point of your hands and the accompanying waveform spike to manually sync audio. There can be some benefit to having additional shot information recorded on the slate (lens focal length, sound filename, etc.) but these non-electronic slates definitely won’t help you with timecode information. It’s still common in 2019 to see non-smart-slated productions.
Movie Slate, an iOS app, is great. I enjoy electronic slating because on set you can create some basic reports that are useful in editorial and it’s affordable and convenient in many smaller shoots. That being said, some people really like to hate on the iPad slates and they have some valid points. It’s a fragile, multipurpose (rather than purpose-built) device. The screen is highly reflective and can be hard to read outdoors. Battery life is sub-par. It’s harder to hold and lacks the physical, clapping, stick which is sort of the ultimate point of the slate. I get all that, but I also get the convenience of a phone or tablet with very advanced software.
Movie Slate serves much of the same functionality, but it’s not in the price league of a “real” smart slate ($1400 USD). A nice app for iOS devices, it allows a lot of metadata entry and syncs with popular timecode gear. Here’s a quick look at how I recommend affordable timecode integration. Small “Tentacle” boxes supply accurate time code with the ability to jam sync via LTC (linear time code). This is analog audio that sounds like an old modem, but can be read as time code information. You sync the iPad’s timecode to or from one of these Tentacles and use it like a regular timecode system. The app gets a bit pricey at $10/month once you start using the pro features, but if you’re not using it frequently just pay for those features on the month you need them. It costs even more for the script supervisor tools. Movie Slate gives you an easy .pdf report with scene and take data and whatever notes you wish to record. This allows you, or an assistant editor, to apply this information to its associated clips in post production.
The metadata, if input on set, can be really useful. Scene data is imperative for organization, while circled takes can provide insight onto the takes a director wants an editor to prioritize. On a bigger shoot it’s not unusual for various departments to overlap the data they record through many different reports. For example, is the lens being used recorded on a script supervisor’s log or an assistant camera’s log? Sadly it’s all-to-common for post not to use these reports and they sometimes become ritualistic. The essential part for your production is that the data you need is recorded for your project so rather than obsessing over industry standards on smaller shoots understand the principle and make sure you have the information you need. Just Google Image Search some of the common reports and you’ll see how much variation there is. I like using MovieSlate on an iPad because it gives a lot more information than a typical slate and doesn’t rely on the camera manufacturer’s metadata being recognized by the editing or ingest software. Typically, the sound department will input scene/shot and take data and it will be embedded in the .wav file. When you sync picture and sound, you’ll see that information appear since oftentimes the video file metadata won’t be recognized by the editing software.
Unfortunately the fact that an iOS uses a data connection to synchronize with a time server for its own clock doesn’t guarantee accuracy for timecode. Eric, MovieSlate’s creator, still recommends jamming in the morning and at a lunch break. It’s also important to keep MovieSlate open if you’re jamming it from an external device. iOS can cause the sync connection to be lost if it’s running as a background app.
This process isn’t as automatic as one might hope; you’re sometime even entering this “metadata” manually and we’ll talk more about that in the duties of an assistant editor. This is one area where working with something like Blackmagic cameras inside Blackmagic Resolve becomes very convenient; since they make the camera and the NLE software, there is a solid match between metadata input via the on-set camera and that which appears in post.