Five Tips for Holding the Slate Properly When Marking a Shot

Five Tips for Holding the Slate Properly When Marking a Shot

The duty of slating falls to the 2nd assistant camera (AC) who must stand in front of the camera, hold the slate, and clap the sticks. Holding the slate seems like an obvious act -- and it largely is -- but you should take these five tips into consideration before stepping in front of the camera.

It’s over in only a few seconds: “Mark it!” *CLAP*

Yet slating — clapping the sticks on a slateboard to mark a scene — is more important than the time it’s given on set. It helps crew in post-production sync sound, organize shots, and even provides quick color references.

The duty of slating falls to the 2nd assistant camera (AC), who works in tandem with the script-supervisor to put the correct info on the slate. The 2nd AC must also stand in front of the camera, hold the slate, and clap the sticks.

Holding the slate seems like an obvious act — and it largely is — but you should take these five tips into consideration before stepping in front of the camera.

1. Don’t Cover Any Information On the Slate

The last thing you want to do is render one of the primary responsibilities of the slate moot — providing info about the shot — because your palm, finger, or even your face is covering whatever info you’ve written on it.

So make sure when you grip the clapperboard, that your fingers rest in blank spaces. If you absolutely can’t hold the slate without covering something, make sure it is non-essential info like the name of the director or cinematographer.

Never, ever cover up the scene number, take number, or roll number or else you defeat the whole purpose of slating in the first place.

2. Don’t Cover the Part Where the Sticks Meet

This is a huge mistake many beginning 2nd AC’s will make — they’ll somehow cover where the two sticks of the clapperboard make contact. This effectively makes the slate useless for its other primary responsibility: syncing sound.

To be able to sync the sound, the editor has to see the exact frame the two sticks touch. With your fingers in the way, this isn’t possible.

The solution is simple: hold the top stick towards the middle and not on the end where you may accidentally wrap your fingers around it and block the contact between the two sticks.

3. Angle the Slate Downwards So it Doesn’t Reflect

When shooting exterior scenes or in front of bright lamps, light can catch a slate in just the right way that it shoots a beam of light straight into the camera lens. While it’s fun for you to feel like Cyclops from X-Men, it’s not fun for the editor nor the camera operator staring through the eyepiece.

So always hold the slate with the top tilted slightly forward (since most lights will be positioned above you; if the lights are below, then tilt it upwards). Don’t get too crazy, however, as the slate still needs to be fairly vertical for the camera to read it.

4. Insert the Slate in Frame with the Sticks Open

At the beginning of a take, the sticks should always be open. This goes for both digital and film.

If the first frame of a clip or a take has the sticks closed, the editor may mistakenly think they missed the clap or that the camera started recording too late and go searching for it. This wastes valuable time in post-production.

5. Hold the Slate Steady with Minimal Movement

It’s hard to read information on a slate that’s constantly moving. Similarly, it’s difficult to determine the exact frame the sticks clap if motion blur obscures them.

On longer lenses, you will not have much room to be moving the slate around. Even a couple of inches in any direction could lead to the camera operator losing it from the frame. They will depend on you to remain still while they find it again.

The best way to hold a slate steady? Use two hands.

Many camera assistants will slate with one-hand when they start feeling cocky, want to simplify the process, or because they are holding something in another hand like a slate-light. It’s faster and easier this way, but make sure you still follow all of the rules above and keep the slate steady.

When in doubt, you’ll want to guarantee you follow at least these three rules:

  1. Hold the slate in frame
  2. Hold it steady
  3. Cover nothing up

Seems obvious, but I’ve watched many 2nd AC’s fail to follow all three consistently.

Slate the Scene and Move On with the Shot

If you need a visual aid to help you get a handle on proper slating technique, look at the picture at the top of this post — that’s me slating a behind-the-scenes shoot I did a couple years ago. Notice how my fingers aren’t covering any info — nor the sticks — and that it’s in frame with the sticks open.

Though slating can seem intimidating — after all, the whole crew watches you — it’s not difficult at all. It just requires a bit of common sense and an awareness of the process.

After a few takes, it becomes second nature and you barely think about it. For instance, I didn’t talk myself through slating the shot in the picture above — I just popped in front of the camera, opened the sticks, and slammed them.

And if you are able to follow these five tips, you’ll have no problems doing the same. You’ll quickly find yourself ready to slate a scene and move on with the shot.

What tactics do you use to hold a slate and keep it in frame? What mistakes have you seen 2nd AC’s make? Or yourself make? Please share your stories in the comments!

  • RW

    I also instruct my 2nd to stay close but pay attention to the discussion between the DP, Director, Gaffer, etc about the shot and not to put the slate in until the very last second so that everyone can see the shot without the slate interfering. Too often an inexperienced 2nd will present the slate while the lighting or framing or other details are still being discussed. I try to maintain eye contact with the second to silently remove the slate if it’s in the way.

  • Benjamin_Tubb

    With regards to having the sticks open at the beginning of the shot: When slating MOS, I like to have the sticks closed, with my hand covering them. So if the sticks are open, the editor knows a sync point is coming, and if they’re closed and covered, they know there isn’t one. Sort of an additional MOS/SYNC marker.

    And this sort of goes along with that, but it’s good for a camera team to ensure they don’t start rolling until slate is ALREADY in frame. With film it’s not as important except to save some celluloid, but with a digital clip-based system, it’s nice when the thumbnails have the slate in them.

    Great Article Evan! These are my favorites of yours, where you break down something basic into the many sides of it we don’t usually think of. Keep it up man.

    • barbie leung

      Like Benjamin, when slating MOS, I also cover closed sticks with one hand, and with the other hand’s index finger I do a tapping point to the “MOS” in the lower right corner of the slate. The pointing makes the editor’s job even easier, it becomes that much quicker to see that the shot is MOS because of the moving index finger. (Learned this from a DP who’s really picky about their ACs.)

  • Peter Keith

    A good way I’ve found to help a ease a nervous trainee or someone else doing it for the first few times is to remind them that all they’re doing is announcing to the sound recordest in the next room what the slate and take is (in the uk at least). Look for the mic and talk to it as if you would a person, ie if its only 2 feet away don’t shout the details and also be sure if slating right in front of an actor to clap ‘quietly’! Remember…Its not a huge announcement to the whole crew, so relax! Also be sure to look over to the 1st ac who should silently give you the cue or an up/down/left/right finger point to position the board in frame and then give you the nod to ‘mark’ or actually say “mark it” or something along those lines.
    Also very good point made earlier to quickly take the board out of frame should you hear the DP, operator, Director or anyone for that matter discuss anything to do with the frame just prior to the take. Imagine you’re in their shoes and watching the monitor and happen to notice a mistake or change to the scene just before the camera rolls. It doesn’t help if the boards in the way of the issue trying to be discussed!

  • TacomaAC

    I was taught to put the slate up relative to your lens, ie a 35mm lens- put it up roughly 4 feet away or a 100mm lens, roughly 10 feet away. I was also taught to keep the slate ready and flat just below the frame until the last possible second so that the operator, director and whoever else can still see the frame and make their necessary adjustments before rolling on a take without a huge slate in their way. I was also taught to put the slate up to frame and not make the operator find you, that way they dont have to reframe for a shot that has already been set. I assume this is common knowledge but you never know. As with anything being a skills are paramount.

  • Kira Wolf Trinity

    Framing on medium and tighter shots is always the biggest issue with newbies I see over and over again. Squaring with the lens and knowing intuitively (from listening and watching the shot being set up) which action is being focused on takes practice and know-how.

    • barbie leung

      Another kind of newbie likes to open the sticks a full 90 degrees and then just drops the sticks. It may be obvious for us, but a lot of newbies don’t know to hold the sticks 45 degrees and slap the sticks down. If just dropped, they can bounce back, making it pretty obnoxious in post (esp when working with actual film) to see in which frame the sticks actually meet.

  • Andrew Bradley

    agreements all the way! It bugs me how “some” people get it wrong who get involved from other departments. There is a real skill to it that comes with experience but I feel is getting lost in digital.

    I have a cool little tip I think a loader or 1st ac showed me once. If you are on a long lens, say over a 100mm and you are a little unsure where the center of frame is, IF there is a filter (any filter) in the mb, then you can look straight down the lens and this works from a great distance, if you can see yourself in the reflection, then you have found the center.

  • Taha Alwash

    A few time savers I’ve experienced 2nd ACing is to tape the camera log on the back of the slate and use a makeshift ‘Cap Holder’ using Gaffer tape. This way you set an easy, quick routine for the slating procedure. Sticks outside of frame, when DP/Director ready to roll sticks should already be in there, roll, verbal slate ID, Mark it with the slate steady and pull out half-one second later. Remember to change take # ASAP in quiet, possibly in another room. Having a mark eraser at the back of the pen helps too.

    Adding to Andrew’s statement, I do think Slating and the duties of a 2nd AC feel different under digital. I think it has go to do with the fact that with film your working with a physical medium whereas in digital it is infinite. Recently working on a 16mm shoot, I was 2nd ACing and it felt much more intense knowing that each feet of film was money fleeting so we used it more wisely and behaved with more purpose behind and infront of the camera.

  • Cail

    2 tips:

    For 35mm or digital 35mm at 1.78:1, a standard slate needs to be 1 foot from the camera for every 10mm of focal length on the lens. For different gate sizes or different aspects you will need to adjust.

    Second, vary your clap volume according to how close to either and actor or a mic you are. In the rare times you are near an actor but far from a mic, apologise before clapping loudly, not after.

  • KieranM

    It can be extremely jarring for an editor to get the exact frame with the clap if the slate moves upon impact. Evan mentions reducing the slate movement entirely, but I would definitely stress the moments after slating as most important. I would recommend holding the slate for a good solid second after the clap just to make sure.

  • Mike Flynn
  • Travis

    In my experience it takes years to completely master the slate, theres a hundred things to keep in mind to get a perfect, un-noticed marker over and over again. While all your points are valid, the picture shown as a reference isnt a great slate. The old-school tradition of NEVER, EVER stepping in front of the lens (unless its necessary eg. laying marks) seems to have disappeared with the generation that adhered by it. You’ll impress any pro that notices by ducking under the lens, going around the camera, announce “crossing” when you have to walk by the front of the camera and generally showing respect to the shot being made and the people making it.

    • Evan

      It’s funny you mention that, Travis, because the person in the picture is actually me :)

      So allow me to explain why I was in front of the lens: we were shooting a behind the scenes doc and I was the only AC. I was also acting as a producer of sorts while the DP operated and pulled his own focus. He often shot quickly and would whip the camera up on his own shoulder and, instead of waiting for me to insert the slate, would simply turn to face me and have me hold the slate up.

      In all other regards, I like to think it’s a pretty good slate! The guy who edited it had no complaints.

      Of course in a less hectic, more film-like environment, I respect the lens. I even get nervous when I walk in front of the TV while my family is watching I’m so used to being self-conscious about stuff like that. I agree that announcing crossing is good practice and that staying out of the shot if you don’t need to be in it is solid advice.

      • alphaphex

        I’ve actually found that announcing “Crossing” before stepping in front of the lens annoys most seasoned ACs, because they of all people understand that people are working around the camera, and hearing “Crossing” every 2 seconds gets just as old as hearing “HOT POINTS.” And I purposefully didn’t mention announcing it while the Operator or DP is looking through the lens, because you shouldn’t ever walk in front of the lens if that’s the case, hence, no need to say anything. Go under if you can, but I would never cross in front of the DP or Operator.

  • Ana Breton

    I would also like to add a few tips from experience:
    -Keep the slate SHUT once you’ve slated. People get fired from simply keeping it open.
    -Most slates tend to have a reflective surface. Keep this surface toward you, as it may catch light that could leak to the scene = BAD. Keep slate toward you, but make sure it doesn’t rub off.
    -Personal tip: I usually wear something bright, like a pair of yellow sunglasses on my head. That way, when I’m trying to find myself in the lens (to make sure the slate is in the frame) I can aim to find the yellow sunglasses. It sound silly, but it saves me a lot of time.

  • Red.Sara.Epic

    Sometimes when there are lots of long takes I forget if I was proactive and wrote the next take or if the take we just shot is still written. Someone gave me the advice to draw a line through the take number right after you slate so you can still see which take you were on but you know its already been slated.