It’s also one of the most recognizable duties a 2nd Assistant Camera (AC) is expected to fulfill. There’s a reason why a 2nd AC is also known as the “clapper/loader.”
When we think about slating, we tend to focus on the clapping aspect of it or the protocol that leads up to the slamming of the sticks. But just as important as hitting the sticks is getting the correct information on the front of the slateboard — things like scene, take, roll, and the production’s name.
If the information on the slate is incorrect, it could anger an editor (which you don’t want) or it could be mistaken as correct and cause confusion in post-production (which you definitely don’t want).
So before you ever step in front of the camera to slate, you need know how to fill it out properly.
The Sections of the Slate and What They Mean
In a sense, the slate is like the form they hand you when you visit the doctor’s office. There are areas for your name, for your insurance, and checklists for you to provide additional information. All of the information you supply serves to help people (usually an editor) have a better understanding of what the scene is about — just like you help the doctor understand your level of health.
The most common pieces of information conveyed on the slate are:
- Production: The name or title of the movie
- Timecode: Digital timecode synced to the audio
- Roll: The roll that you’re currently shooting on
- Scene: The scene number/shot you’re shooting
- Take: The current take of the shot
- Director: Name of the director of the production
- Camera: Name of the director of photography/cinematographer of the production
- Date: The month, day, and year that you’re shooting
All of these sections of the slate can be further categorized into two main types of info:
1. Production Specific: This includes the name of the movie, the name of the director, cinematographer, and producer, as well as the date or shooting day.
2. Shot Specific: The roll, scene, and take are the most obvious shot-specific pieces of information, but this also encompasses further details like MOS, Day/Nite, and Int/Ext which we’ll talk about later.
When you fill out a slate for the first time, you’ll have to fill out both production-specific and shot-specific information. But as you continue on a production, you’ll be making changes almost exclusively to shot-specific areas on the clapperboard.
So you have a full comprehension of what each of these sections mean, let’s explore them further.
Note: Because I work in the United States, the slating system I will be referencing is the American system. There are several alternatives from other countries that I am not an expert on. If you are, please share their differences in the comments!
In this area you want to write the name or the title of the production you’re working on. Most of the time this is obvious, especially in narrative work.
But it doesn’t have to be a real title — it can be a working title, a nickname title, a shortened title, or a descriptive title — as long as there is some name for the production. There are times where you will work on projects that don’t have a name, such as commercials or industrial shoots. In these instances, simply use a descriptive title.
For instance, I was working as part of a behind-the-scenes crew for a commercial shoot (odd, I know) and had to put something on the slate. The commercial was for the Virginia Lottery so I wrote “BTS VA Lottery” and that was that.
If you aren’t sure what to write, it’s always a safe bet to ask the director of photography (DP) or a producer what their preference is.
Don’t stress too much over this, but do take it seriously. It’s ill-advised to change the name of the production on the slate after shooting has begun or you’ll lose the consistency of the name which can cause confusion later in post-production.
On some slates — called “Smart Slates” — there may be a digital screen that displays a shot’s timecode. The slate is synced to a timecode generator or the audio recorder via a cable and then is maintained by the slate itself via battery power.
Not all slates feature timecode and, in many cases, it isn’t necessary (it can be useful, though).
As a camera assistant, it will be your job to keep the timecode in sync, but it’s generally something you sync a few times a day and check periodically to make sure it hasn’t drifted.
Because you don’t have to change it as often as other things on the slate (and since you technically don’t “write” it on there), I don’t want to spend too much time getting into the details of syncing timecode — I just wanted to list it here for posterity.
Roll / Tape
The part of the slate that says “Roll” is a bit complicated within the context of film versus digital.
In the film world, the roll number is fairly literal. Everytime a new magazine is loaded into the camera — filled with a fresh roll of film — that is a new roll.
In the digital world, the roll number is a bit more abstract and is usually determined by the preference of the camera assistant. I always treat each new memory card on a digital shoot as a new magazine and thus a new roll. So each time a new memory card is reformatted, it’s considered a new roll.
In the tape world, a new tape would be reason to increment a new roll number. In fact, some video slates have “Tape” engraved on them in place of “Roll.”
In all cases, the roll number is preceded by a letter which designates which camera the roll is for. On multi-camera shoots, cameras are assigned letters starting with “A” for the main camera, “B” for the second, and so on and so forth. The reason you specify which roll corresponds to which camera is to help organize shots in post-production, but also because “B” or “C” cameras aren’t used on every shot and so the roll numbers between the cameras can be wildly different.
Even if you’re shooting with one camera, it’s good practice to include the letter as it eliminates any potential confusion. (Though it’s implied that a roll number without a letter is for the “A” camera).
As an example, if you were shooting on Roll 23 on the “A” camera, you would write this: A023 or A23. If you were on a multi-camera shoot, but using one slate for all cameras, you would list each camera with its letter and roll number (i.e. A23, B15, C05). If you were on a multi-cam shoot, but have one slate for each camera, you list only your camera’s letter and roll number.
Scene / Slate
In the American style of slating, scene designation is actually a combination of a number and a letter. The number correlates to the scene you are shooting while the letter correlates to the shot you’re on.
So, when starting a brand new scene, you simply write just the scene number and it stands on it’s own (i.e. 24). Whenever a new shot is setup — usually when the camera changes position or changes lenses — you add a letter (i.e. 24A).
You continuously add letters for as many shots as there are in a scene. So if you shoot a master, two closeups, and a medium shot, by the end of the scene you will have reached the letter “C”
The slating would go like this:
- Master – 24
- Closeup One – 24A
- Closeup Two – 24B
- Medium – 24C
What happens if you go all the way through the alphabet? You double-up on the letters (i.e. 24 AD).
As a quick warning: I see a lot of 2nd AC’s make the mistake of assuming that just because the camera hasn’t changed positions, that they shouldn’t change the slate. But the slate changes whenever you move onto a new shot regardless if the camera itself moves. Sometimes the changes are subtle: the camera pushes into a subject instead of from them; or a lens change punches in for a tighter closeup; or the camera pans a bit to focus on a different subject in a scene.
Remember that whenever the shot itself changes, you increment a letter.
There will undoubtedly be grey areas with this. At any point you are unsure, it is best to defer to the script supervisor. As 2nd AC, you must work closely with the script supervisor to make sure their notes line-up with what is being slated. Between you and them, you figure out a solution.
Each time a shot is repeated and the camera cuts, it is considered a “Take.”
Do not re-slate another take if the camera doesn’t cut because, technically, it is still on the same take. The exception would be if you’re told to re-slate it while keeping the camera rolling.
But more often than not, I guarantee the director will just shout, “Don’t cut, just do it again!”
Do not re-slate in these instances because you will only waste time and film (if you’re shooting on it) by doing so. If the director wants to make the editor’s job harder by having multiple tries on one take, that’s their prerogative.
(Though you could lightly suggest shooting a “series” or “pickups” — which we’ll discuss later — when appropriate.)
Takes always start at 1, count upwards, and are tied only to a particular shot.
Let me reiterate that: Takes are tied to particular shots, not to scenes. So whenever there is a new shot — like when 24A becomes 24B — you should start with Take 1 again.
As a final note, even blown takes that are cut early because of mistakes count. So if an actor comes into frame and messes up their first line, that counts as a take. Don’t ever re-slate the same take for any reason! It’s much easier to just move on up to the next number.
Names, Dates, and Miscellaneous Information
The names on the slate are, to be honest, somewhat out of vanity. It isn’t really necessary to list the director and the cinematographer, but out of tradition, respect, and a small amount of useful reference, it is done that way.
The only piece of advice about this is absolutely do not misspell either of those names.
If you misspell those names, the minute you throw the slate into frame and the director sees their name butchered on the monitor, they aren’t going to be very happy.
And neither will your department for making them look bad.
It is not out of poor taste to ask a director or cinematographer how they prefer their name on the slate if they go by a nickname or shortened version. Some will want a professional name on there, while others will have no preference.
To make sure you spell the name correctly, use a call sheet when writing it and double check with somebody who has worked with the director or knows them that the name is correct.
For the love of God, if you misspell those names, you aren’t going to have a fun shoot.
In terms of the date, my only advice is to use permanent marker on the slate, or use a piece of tape so you aren’t constantly having to rewrite it throughout the whole day. Just make sure you remember to update it every morning. People are sticklers about detail on the slate – trust me.
The rest of the information you see listed on the slate (things like MOS, NITE, DAY, etc.) are specific designations that help to further categorize a scene, but aren’t always necessary.
You can use this section of the slate, if you wish, but it is not required or mandatory.
The only important piece of the info is MOS of which there are better and more prudent ways of notifying an editor of. This is something we’ll talk about in much further detail in the next post of this three-part series.
Next Up: 5 Unique Slating Scenarios
This post is the first in a three-part series I’m writing about deciphering the film slate. The next two dive even further into what goes on the slate and what it all means.
To outsiders looking in, slating may seem like a film-set stereotype, but there’s good reasons it takes place: it helps streamline the editorial workflow and sync audio in post.
But all of the advantages of the slate in post-production start in the camera department with the camera assistants who step in front of the lens with the clapperboard. And it’s crucial you fill it out properly to prevent bottlenecks in post-production.
Being able to successfully fill out a film slate means understanding what’s on it in the first place. Once you grasp what each section means, it makes it easier to leverage the slate into the useful cinematic tool that it is.
So continue reading this series to further explore what to write on a clapperboard:
- Deciphering the Film Slate Part 2: Pickups, Plates, MOS, and More
- Deciphering the Film Slate Part 3: Twelve Examples of a Completed Slate
I’d love to hear your thoughts on filling out the slate. Specifically, it’d be useful to hear from readers who use a different system than the American system I described here. Share in the comments please!