Physical slates have been around for ages and have largely remained unchanged. The biggest shift for them has been from chalk to dry erase and then from “dumb” slates to slates that can display a jam-synced timecode. After that, there are small slates for insert shots, larger ones for wides, some have colored sticks, some have reversible sticks, but for the most part the slate has stayed the same. Perhaps that is why it is such an iconic tool of filmmaking — it is instantly recognizable due to its sustained form factor and long history within the business.
Software slates, like those on the iPad, are a relatively new tool in the arsenal of camera assistants. They operate on platforms not necessarily designed for slating, but platforms that are designed to handle data, quick changes, and various different input methods. I have a slate app on my iPhone that I keep in case I want a quick and dirty insert slate, but I have never used it as a primary clapperboard.
To me, software slates like the one in Apple’s commercial, have two distinct advantages, one of which is the ability to record information and distribute it easily. MovieSlate is able to record each time the slate is clapped and arrange the files into all sorts of exportable formats including CSV, HTML and a Final Cut XML file. This means that all the information input onto the slate is already digitized to be emailed to various production personnel.
Along with other apps that can record camera reports, MovieSlate does allow detailed optics settings to be recorded with each take (something I erroneously said was not available originally in this post.) With the iPad able to multitask now, it’s not out of the question that it could slate, do camera reports and be a hub for sending all of this useful information throughout the set. On a WiFi connection, multiple iOS devices running MovieSlate can even sync together. This convergence of tasks is very appealing in an industry that is always trying to streamline and save time.
The other advantage that the iPad has over traditional slates is cost. Of course, I am comparing costs between the iPad and timecode slates which normally cost in the range of $1,000 – $1,500 plus the devices necessary to jam sync the timecode. MovieSlate costs $19.99 plus an in-app purchase to enable jam-syncs. Even factoring in the cost of an iPad, MovieSlate will tab a bill of approximately $550 at the low end and a little under $1,000 at the high end. Plus, at the end of the day you don’t have just a slate — you have an iPad.
Now, the iPad is certainly trumped in price by dumb slates and I think that is something that should be strongly considered when viewing the iPad as a suitable alternative for a physical slate. A decently sturdy engraved slate from Filmtools, like the one I have, costs about $55. That is substantially lower than the cost of an iPad and only a few Andrew Jacksons more than the MovieSlate app.
Certainly the iPad has some distinct advantages over physical slates and these derive from its roots as a computer with slate software overlayed. But there are also some real issues that would come with using an iPad to slate. The first that comes to my mind is battery life. With real smart slates if the battery runs out, you pop some more in. With Apple’s notoriously locked ecosystem of batteries, the iPad would have to be charged before being used again. It isn’t as simple as putting a new one inside the device. Sure you could use multiple iPads, but that would mean spreading apart all the valuable information the app records, thereby diluting one aspect of the app that made it so valuable.
So what if the battery dies? There are no alternatives. And don’t think that it isn’t a real possibility either. Many productions stretch into 16 or 17 hour days and an iPad battery, while impressive, would not last that long constantly illuminating its screen with enough light to slate. With physical slates, even if the timecode goes out on the front due to dead batteries, the sticks are still there. The dry erase will still show up. There are still those narrow pieces of wood to slap together. And that is the essence of the slate. Despite its use as an editing and logging tool, it is first and foremost used to sync sound — at least on most sets.
The other issue I thought of was one of volume. I have been on some pretty noisy sets such as city streets or vacant exteriors with generators running. With a physical slate, you can shout “loud sticks!” and slam those suckers hard. Slam dunk them to hell to get some sort of noise that the editor can sync to. But with MovieSlate, the volume of the clap is limited by the speakers attached to the iPad.
Further, like any computer system, iOS is subject to freezes and crashes. I don’t think production, talent and crew are going to be willing to wait while an iPad restarts to shoot a scene. I know I wouldn’t and I would be embarrassed and frustrated if put in that position. No matter how sophisticated the tech is, you can’t depend on it to work 100% of the time.
While I don’t think using an iPad or, god forbid, an iPhone to slate an entire production is a good idea, I do think the apps come in handy at times. As I said, I have a slate app to use as an insert slate, and if shooting run ‘n gun or a quick short with friends, I don’t see these problems being too major. As a professional, however, I wouldn’t advise anyone to use an iPad or iPhone as a real alternative to a traditional timecode slate, or even a dumb slate for that matter.
The only way I would ever want to use an iPad as my primary clapperboard option would be if I could have some physical sticks attached to the side so that even if it died I had that going for me. I love the idea of using an iPad/iPhone for camera reports so they can be emailed or using the two to watch dailies, but I think that is where I would limit it. For now, my “dumb” slate rests comfortably in the bottom of my set bag without having to be charged, booted up, or synced. It’s clap and go — ninja-style — and I like that way.