by Justin Difazzio
If you’ve ever seen a movie or tv show where filming is taking place, then you know that trope where someone slaps that little strip on the board down and yells, “Action!” And if you’ve actually been involved in a production, you probably know that that doohickey is called a clapboard, or a film slate, and it’s much more useful than just for starting a scene.
The main two pieces of the clapboard are the clapper and the slate. The clapper is exactly what it sounds like: it’s that slappy bit on top with the hinge. The slate is the lower part with writing on it. It may look like gibberish, but it actually serves as a great reference for when and where the scene lives. We’ll explain more below.
No, we’re not talking about that “clap on, clap off” invention from the 80s whose jingle is now stuck in your head. We’re talking about the hinged, percussive slat on top. It’s not just for attention-getting before you yell, “ACTION!” It’s actually useful for editing. The person who marries the audio to the visuals of a scene (because it doesn’t necessarily happen automatically) uses that clap as a reference point. They can see when the bar comes down in the visuals, hear the sound of it on audio, and sync them up to the same mark. Without that, it would be sort of an exercise in trial and error to avoid looking like a poorly dubbed kung fu movie.
The area of the clapboard with spaces for recording information relevant to the scene being filmed is often referred to as the slate, named for the chalkboard surface they used to be covered by. Now, they’re mostly dry erase surfaces. More importantly, the information that goes on them can help anyone working with the film to know the relevant details for the scene. These details may include(but are not limited to):
- Title: the title of the production,
- Names: the names of director and cinematographer, camera operator, etc.
- Camera: the number or name of the camera being used (such as A-cam, B-cam, etc.)<.li>
- Date: the day the shoot took place
- Roll: where the shot is stored, such as what exact film roll or storage device
- Scene Information: this identifies what scene is being filmed, including act, shot, and take.
All of this information is essential during editing, since trying to find a specific shot would take hours of scrubbing through footage to locate without it. All of this time-saving information is on screen at the beginning of each shot, which keeps costs down and makes for a quick visual reference for editors. Handy!
And Now You Know
Imagine hunting through ten thousand photographs in an album for the single shot you’re thinking of. With a clapboard, that metaphorically turns an endless slog into the simple act of turning to a tab and looking at a single page of photos for the one you need. It might seem like a small invention, overlooked and often unnoticed by those who aren’t in the industry, but without it, editing would be endlessly time consuming and costly. Next time you see a clapboard on television or at the movies, you can look past the simple shorthand of a clapping attention getter and see it for the information it provides. And that, friends, is the clapboard demystified.