Filed Under:

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

Play associated audio

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 slate operator 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 are campaigning to have her honored during the Academy Awards' 'In Memoriam' segment this Sunday.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

NPR

Lisa Lucas Takes The Reins At The National Book Foundation

Lucas is the third executive director in the history of the foundation, which runs the National Book Awards. Her priority? Inclusivity: "Everyone is either a reader or a potential reader," she says.
NPR

The Shocking Truth About America's Ethanol Law: It Doesn't Matter (For Now)

Ted Cruz doesn't like the law that requires the use of ethanol in gasoline. So what would happen if it was abolished? The surprising answer: not much, probably.
WAMU 88.5

The Latest on the Military, Political and Humanitarian Crises in Syria

Russia continues airstrikes in Syria. Secretary Kerry meets with world leaders in an attempt to resolve the country’s five-year civil war. A panel joins Diane to discuss the latest on the military, political and humanitarian crises facing Syria.

NPR

Twitter Tries A New Kind Of Timeline By Predicting What May Interest You

Twitter has struggled to attract new users. Its latest effort at rejuvenation is a new kind of timeline that predicts which older posts you might not want to miss and displays them on top.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.