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🎬 The Slate

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https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Clapperboard,_O2_film,_September_2008.jpg (CC2)

The slate is an iconic piece of filmmaking. It establishes a specific frame visually and aurally for sync. This can include a timecode readout on a “smart” slate, or simply be the closing of the sticks on a slate with no electronic 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.

Tips

  • Avoid letters like I, O, S, Y (“S” looks like a 5, and “Y” looks like “X” when written quickly). Not everyone quite agrees on which letters are forbidden though, so don’t argue with the script supervisor.
  • Use the “nato” alphabet when calling out scenes (“Scene 4 “Delta”).
  • Close softly when in front of a talent’s face. 
  • Precede closing of the sticks with the word “Marker”, and audible cue the assistant editor will look for when syncing. 
  • Coordinate with script supervisor to make sure scene and take numbers are matching. Or you could try the sound department if they’re more accessible.
  • If a shot has no sound (MOS) then hold the sticks with your hand blocking them from closing or close the sticks and put your hand over them.
  • Say “Common Sticks” when shooting one slate for multiple cameras.
  • Make sure the slate is as centered as possible, in frame completely, close enough to camera (easy if you know the focal length). The slate should be on foot away for every 10mm of focal length on a super-35 sensor. For example, shooting on an 85mm lens, keep the slate around 8.5 feet from camera.
  • Close it without letting it slap too hard which will accidentally double slate and make syncing more difficult. Then hold the clap briefly. The slate will freeze the timecode it was at when it closed for several frames making it easy for the post team to see the value.
  • Tilt the slate forward slightly; it minimizes risk of light reflecting off it and into the lens.
  • Write the permanent info on tape so it doesn’t come off the slate. Sharpie can be erased with dry erase markers (this tip is also great for camera mags).
  • It’s very bizarre, but the sound guys provide the slate, even though they don’t use it. And it’s similarly bizarre that the production audio recordist has to make sure this information is in his file metadata while the camera simply relies on the slate and more often than not has no scene metadata.

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

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

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.

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