Why, when and how to use a clapperboard
This is probably the most well known phrase associated with Hollywood and film making.
If you’ve ever watched those little behind the scenes extras on DVDs you’ll have probably seen at some point a crew member using a clapperboard. Standing in front of the camera before it rolls, shouting out some random numbers and letters before hitting the sticks together and preceding to hurry out of shot immediately afterwards. Have you ever wondered what the point of this little device is? If so, then look no further.
Clapperboards are pretty fun things and they make fantastic decorations (especially if a production or director’s name has been inscribed on it!) but they are actually very important tools in the film making process. Understanding why we use them, when to use them and how you should be using them can not only help you act professionally, but potentially save you time and money, depending on your production
Why do we use them?
Lets turn back the clock to an age where 35mm and 16mm film were the standards for most people making movies. When the first ‘talkies’ were released way back in the 1920s, that is films that featured synchronized picture and sound, the sound was not recorded onto the film but separately (using a sound on disc system, recording to wax records). Early film cameras were also very noisy which contributed to the difficulty of recording live sound. Fast forward to the present day and in the 21st century on movie sets the sound is still recorded separately, albeit to designated sound recorders, rather than straight into camera. The primary purpose of the clapper board back in the early days and in the present is the same; to help sync up the visuals and the sound in the cutting room.
When do we use them?
You may be thinking that in this day and age, why are we still recording sound and visuals separately? Isn’t the technology good enough to record both in one? There are actually many reasons why we still record separately. Firstly, being able to separate the camera operator and the boom operator means that the camera isn’t restricted and is free to move however the director wishes. The sound recordist and sound mixer are also free to record from multiple sources; using radio mics on each of the actors and/or condenser mics for room ambience for example. Furthermore, designated sound recorders are manufactured to record the cleanest sounding audio possible, whereas most cameras aren’t designed with this in mind.
So, we use clapper boards whenever the highest quality audio is required and when the situation allows.
How do we use them?
On feature films, the 2nd Assistant Camera is responsible for the clapperboard. On a smaller production a camera assistant or even a runner could be responsible for this.
Every single scene, slate (another word for shot), take and roll is written onto the board to signify the part of the production that is being captured. Sometimes audio clip information might be included too. The production company, director and cinematographer is also written on the board along with other important information such as the date, the frame rate of the camera for that particular shot, the shutter speed or angle, scene information (whether it is day or night, interior or exterior) and finally, whether sound is being recorded and synced or if there’s no sound (mos).
Slating scenes accurately is crucial so syncing up the footage with the sound in post is a smooth process. Added to this, having visual logs for every shot allows the editor to sift through rushes quickly, knowing exactly which point of the film he or she is at, rather than having to watch or listen to every take in full. For most scenes a loud clap is required to create a noticeable spike in the audio levels, making syncing a breeze.
What kinds of clapperboards are available?
Make no mistake, there is such a thing as a professional clapperboard. Although you can find cheap ones in fancy dress shops or on eBay, these are not built to withstand the daily rigors of set life. From inexpensive chalk boards to fully digital acrylic boards with inbuilt timecode, there are many options available. Boards with timecode allow both the camera and sound departments to be perfectly synced all the way through production. You can even sync footage using an iPad with this handy app (but it’s not quite the same in my opinion!).
If you are looking to purchase a clapper board in the UK then I recommend these guys who offer a wide range of boards to suit various budgets. It’s where I got my first one and she’s still going strong!
As with all tools, there is a time and a place.
Make no mistake, there are certain situations where a clapperboard is not essential. Sometimes you have no choice but to record sound directly into camera (events, video journalism, documentaries etc.) due to time, budget & personnel restraints. In some situations the effort required to record sound separately and sync it up afterwards actually gives you more work with little noticeable gain, costing you time and money. Decide carefully if a board is for you and how often you may use it.
An example of a typical slating process on set when sound is being recorded:
1st Assistant Director: OK, silence please. We’re going for a take. Turnover.
Sound mixer: Sound is rolling!
Camera operator: Camera speed!
2nd AC: Scene 41, slate 6A, take 1, mark.
[2nd AC claps then leaves shot]
Camera operator: Set.
1st Assistant Director/Director: Background action! And..action!
Slating shots that have no sound
For shots without sound the 2nd AC would highlight ‘mos’ (motor only sync) on the clapperboard and when slating would put their hand in between the sticks, hold it in shot and not clap.
Syncing at the end of a take (end boarding)
For those moments when syncing at the start of the take isn’t possible then the 2nd AC will clap at the end of the take, turn the board upside down and add ‘on the end’ after they’ve marked it.
So there you have it. Hopefully you’ve found this information useful so that when you’re next armed with a clapperboard you’ll know exactly what to do. Now as you return to creating great work, you might just find yourself being a little more efficient. Happy shooting!