'Clap!' On Set, The Signature Sound Of The Slate

Feb 27, 2014
Originally published on February 27, 2014 10:12 am

More than the roar of the MGM lion, more than the 20th Century Fox fanfare, the iconic sound of moviemaking is the sharp clap of a slate — although film folks have a language of their own to describe it.

"Miki's hitting the sticks on this one," says assistant cameraman Larry Nielsen, pointing to his assistant.

Take after take, day after day, some Miki or other on a movie set "hits the sticks" — to synchronize the sound with the pictures. In the silent-film days, it wasn't an issue. But once movies started talking, they needed to figure out how to make the lips and the spoken words move at the same time – because the sound is recorded separately.

So someone thought to take two rectangular pieces of wood, hinge them together and then snap them shut in front of the camera before the action began. Later, the sight of the clapper and its distinctive sound on the audio recording could be lined up perfectly.

On a chilly L.A. morning on this set — the film is Walk of Shame — second assistant cameraman Milan "Miki" Janicin, is about to get slapping. In addition to hitting the sticks, he marks the scene and take numbers on a white plexiglass board attached just below the sticks.

But when the call comes, it's still "Slate please!" – because, as Janicin explains, "they were actually made out of slate originally, and they would use chalk" to mark the scene and take numbers.

That's how you've seen in it the old movies — wooden sticks above a chalkboard. These days it's a fancier contraption.

"This is what's called a smart slate," Janicin says.

There's a digital read out on the slate that runs like a clock in real time: 8 o'clock, 9 minutes 4 seconds, and so on. The digital chip inside is similar to chips loaded into the camera and the sound recorder, so audio and video can be easily synchronized later.

But wait: If they've got timecodes and digital sync markers, why do they still need that clap?

"That's in case all this technology fails," Janicin says. "We still have that as a backup."

Of course – backup. The fancy slate could get wet, the battery could die, and these pieces are not lightweight — they could get dropped! So they have to have the slap sound around, always, just in case.

Miki Janicin says there's the occasional director of photography who wants to use the old-style slates — so he keeps one of those in his cart, too.

"Some people, because this is called a smart slate, call this a dumb slate," he says. "I call it a standard slate."

There's something reassuring about the symbolism of the slate, even though it has essentially been replaced by technology. One director of photography told us that the slate sound creates a kind of tension that makes everybody rise to the level of the shot.

It's like, "Listen up, everybody – time to clap-slap-snap to attention."

Editor's Note: Like others in his line of work, Miki Janicin was rattled by the death Feb. 20 of 2nd Assistant Camera person Sarah Jones, who was struck by a train while working on the set of the Gregg Allman biopic Midnight Rider. Many of her colleagues have contributed to an online memorial, Slates for Sarah, and, along with her union, the International Cinematographers Guild Local 600, are campaigning to have her honored during the Academy Awards' 'In Memoriam' segment this Sunday.

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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

OK, other than popcorn, what brings movies to mind, the roar of the MGM Lion?

(SOUNDBITE OF THE MGM LION)

GREENE: The "20th Century Fox Fanfare?"

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "20TH CENTURY FOX FANFARE")

GREENE: Or this iconic sound?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Scene 97, Take one. Mark.

(SOUNDBITE OF A CLAP)

GREENE: But what's that clap sound for? Well, NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg has some insights. Susan is beginning her Oscar's tradition of reporting on odd movie jobs.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Here we go, rolling.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: It's called a Clapper-Board or Slate, although film folks have other ways to describe it.

LARRY NIELSEN: Miki is going to be hitting the sticks on this one.

STAMBERG: Assistant cameraman, Larry Nielsen. His assistant Miki will slap one part of his Slate board onto another, like two sticks. Take after take, day after day, some Miki or other on a movie set hits the sticks to synchronize the sound with the pictures.

In the old silent film days, it wasn't an issue. But once movies started talking, they needed to figure out how to make the lips and the spoken words move at the same time, because the sound is recorded separately. So someone thought to take two rectangular pieces of wood, hinge them together and then snap them shut in front of the camera, before the action began. Later, the sight of the clapper, and its distinctive sound on the audio recording, could be lined up perfectly.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Cue set.

STAMBERG: On a chilly L.A. morning on this set, the film is "Walk of Shame," second assistant cameraman Miki Milan Janicin, is about to get slapping. In addition to hitting the sticks, he marks the scene and take numbers on a white Plexiglas board, attached just below the sticks.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Roll camera and Slate please.

(SOUNDBITE OF A CLAP)

STAMBERG: Slate. Please because, as Miki explains...

MIKI MILAN JANICIN: They were actually made out of slate, originally, and they would use chalk.

STAMBERG: That's how you've seen in it the old movies, wooden sticks above a chalkboard. These days, it's a fancier contraption.

JANICIN: And now, this is what's called a Smart Slate.

STAMBERG: The smart part is there's a digital readout on the Slate that runs like a clock in real time: 8 o'clock, nine minutes, four seconds, and so on. The digital chip inside is similar to chips loaded into the camera and the sound recording. So they can later be easily synchronized.

But if they do that, they don't need this.

(SOUNDBITE OF A CLAP)

JANICIN: Milan that's in case all this technology fails. We still have that as a back up.

STAMBERG: Of course, back-up. The fancy Slate could get wet, the battery could die, and these pieces are not lightweight - they could get dropped. So they have to have the slap sound around always, just in case. But Miki Janicin says there is the occasional director of photography who wants to use the old Slates. So he always has one of those in his cart, too.

There's an old fashioned wooden clapper.

(SOUNDBITE OF A CLAP)

JANICIN: Yeah.

STAMBERG: This is absolutely low technology. Because there's no digital, there's nothing.

JANICIN: Some people, because this is called a Smart Slate, call this a dumb Slate. I call it a Standard Slate.

(LAUGHTER)

STAMBERG: They're ready for the next scene, an actress running through a parking lot. The script supervisor gives Miki the new scene number.

And you're taking a big magic marker, like we all use at home...

JANICIN: Yes.

STAMBERG: ...and you're writing on that...

JANICIN: On my Smart Slate.

STAMBERG: On your Smart Slate.

He writes: Scene 95 Take 1.

OK, so now you're ready to go with it.

JANICIN: I'm ready to go. And rolling. Hail the marker.

(SOUNDBITE OF A CLAP)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Ready and three, two, one, action.

STAMBERG: You know, there is something so reassuring about that signature film-making symbol, even though it has essentially been replaced by technology. One director of photography told us the slate sound creates a kind of tension that makes everybody rise to the level of the shot. It's like: Listen up, everybody - time to clap-slap-snap to attention.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ED WOOD")

MARTIN LANDAU: (as Bela Lugosi) I'm ready, now. Roll the camera.

STAMBERG: Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi, in the film "Ed Wood."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ED WOOD")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Scene 97 Take 1.

LANDAU: (as Bela Lugosi) Beware. Beware. Beware of the big green dragon that sits on your doorstep. Beware, take care.

STAMBERG: I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: And Susan will continue her reporting on odd movie jobs tomorrow. We'll learn about how films stay in focus.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.