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:
- Hold the slate in frame
- Hold it steady
- 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.
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!