Slating is traditionally the job of the second camera assistant. It is always entertaining when someone slates for the first time. They feel the pressure of everyone watching them and they hear “camera speeds,” all of the sudden they can’t remember what to say. This always gets a good laugh from the crew and makes the 2nd AC feel pretty silly.
Slating isn’t as simple as it may seem. There are some useful tips that can help you slate like a pro. So, here we go!
Slate in Prior to Rolling – You always want to have the slate in the shot before the camera is rolling. Editing software will typically display the first frame of a clip, this makes it very easy for the editor to see what scene and take is on the clip when he is searching through the media bins.
Fill the Frame with the Slate – You always want to make the slate as big as possible in the frame. This makes it easy for the Editor to read the slate.
This is very easy to do and with a little practice you will get quite good at it. The general rule of thumb for every 10mm of focal length, you want to move the slate one foot away from the camera.
For example, if the camera has a 50mm lens on it, you should hold the slate five feet away. For an 85mm lens, you would hold the slate eight and a half feet away.
Slate Position – Finding the proper slate position can be tricky. One technique I use is to imagine a straight line running from the lens to the subject at the same angle as the camera. You never want the camera operator to have to re-frame for the slate. It may also be helpful to square the slate up in front of the matte box and then pull the slate straight back to the correct distance for proper framing.
Scene Numbering – So,when you first start to slate, it is helpful if you use the traditional words to call the scene. If you are new to slating, you can get more information by reading the indiefilm.org article on How to Label a Slate.
A scene will usually have more than one angle or shot. So to identify a new shot the slate should be labeled with the scene number and a letter for each shot.
When you slate a scene number with letters, it is standard practice to say a word that starts with the letter for the scene to avoid confusion because there are many letters sound similar, for instance “n” and “m” or “b” and “d.”
The go-to-standard words to use when slating is based on the twenty-six code words in the NATO phonetic alphabet, that have been assigned to the English alphabet. For example scene 54A would be called as “54 – Alpha” This is considered the most professional way to for mark the slate.
Here is the entire NATO Phonetic Alphabet.
A – Alpha
B – Bravo
C – Charlie
D – Delta
E – Echo
F – Foxtrot
G – Golf
H – Hotel
I – India
J – Juliett
K – Kilo
L – Lima
M – Mike
N – November
O – Oscar
P – Papa
Q – Quebec
R – Romeo
S – Sierra
T – Tango
U – Uniform
V – Victor
W – Whiskey
X – X-ray
Y – Yankee
Z – Zulu
There are many unofficial phonetic alphabets that are used on set that are not based on the military standards, but often they are based on words they can be easily remembered. Some other common alphabet words include first names, foods, states, and cities. Sometimes this even turns into a game on set.
Here is the LAPD phonetic alphabet – notice it has many first names.
A – Adam
B – Boy
C – Charles
D – David
E – Edward
F – Frank
G – George
H – Henry
I – Ida
J – John
K – King
L – Lincoln
M – Mary
N – Nancy
O – Ocean
P – Paul
Q – Queen
R – Robert
S – Sam
T – Tom
U – Union
V – Victor
W – William
X – X-ray
Y – Young
Z – Zebra
Clapping – The slate should not move while marking. Any movement will cause motion blur and make it hard for the editor to see the exact moment the slate hits.
The proper slating technique is to hold the slate with one hand and closing the clapper with the other. This is the best method to keep the slate from moving when it is clapped. The clapper must remain in contact with the slate after it is struck. The slate should be left in the frame for a beat before removing it. The trick is to not remove it immediately, but don’t leave it in so long that it slows the action cue from the Director. With a little practice you will get the feel for the timing.
Soft Sticks – Soft sticks are used when you are filming a close up and the slate is very close to the actors face. Before you clap the sticks you should call soft sticks and lightly clap the slate so you don’t take the actor out of the moment. The reason you call soft sticks is to communicate with the editor so he knows when syncing the sound that the clap will not be as loud as normal.
Hard Sticks – Hard sticks are called when you are filming a really wide shot and the boom operator can not get the mic as close as normal. You strike the sticks as hard as possible while keeping them from moving in the frame.
Second Sticks – The most important thing is to make sure that the slate is clearly visible in the frame when you mark. Occasionally the slate may not have been visible in the frame, if this happens the AD may call for second sticks so the slate can be placed back into frame and clapped again. When this happens the AC should call “second sticks” before clapping so the editor knows which clap to use to sync the sound.
Tail Slate – Some situations may call for tail sticks. Tailsticks or tail slating is when you slate at the end of the shot, instead of the start of the shot.
When you tail slate, the slate is held upside down to indicate that it is a tail slate. Once you have called the slate and marked it, flip the slate over so it is easier for the editor to read. Trust me…they will thank you for it.
Always makes sure you are prepared to yell “Tail Slate” once the director calls “Cut!” this helps remind the camera operator and first assistant, to they keep the camera rolling for the slate.
MOS – MOS stands for “motor only sync” or “motor only shot” – MOS is used to indicate there is no sound being recorded for the take. When slating the AC will place his hand between the clapper to allow the editor to know that there is no sound for this take. A popular myth of the origins of MOS is that in the 1920’s a German Director would yell (in broken English) “mit out sound”, instead of, “without sound.” Not sure if this is true or not?
Hold On To The Slate – Make sure you keep the slate with the camera at all times. Nothing aggravates the Assistant Director more than an AC that has misplaced the slate.
Scripty is Your Friend – Make sure you are in communication with the script supervisor regarding the scene and take. If you ever have a question, make sure you clarify it with them before it’s time to slate.
Slating is an art form. A skill acquired only with experience. Hopefully this article will help you avoid some of the most common mistakes and gives you the information you need to know how to slate! To learn more check out the indiefilm.org article on How to Label a Slate.