Camera Slates: How To Slate Cameras Correctly
Knowing how to slate a camera is an essential skill to ensure what’s captured during production is easy for the editor in post to know what each take is and to ensure sync between cameras and sound. While there there are countless fantastic Assistant Camera’s out there who know far more than I do about the topic; It’s amazing how often on smaller shoots someone who’s not as familiar with how to properly slate a camera gets tasked with the job. Here is a guide to how to properly slate cameras.
This article was consulted on by two top notch 1st ACs, Christian Collins & Thomas Matheis. If you need an AC, cannot recommend them enough! Christian also has an advanced slating guide for 2nd ACs on slate distance to camera, slating cadence & timing, as well as AFS (After False Start) slating, and more!
What is a film slate?
In the simplest explanation, a camera slate is a tool used to provide a camera and sound sync point and to burn metadata into the picture that relates to the production, scene, take, and more. When the slate “marks” a take, it not only provides a visual cue, but a corresponding auditory cue (the clap) for aligning audio and video. Whether using a “timecode slate” or “smart slate” that burns in timecode visually, or using a “dumb slate” the idea and how it’s used is more or less the same. While the concept of clapping the slate’s sticks to provide a sync point is simple, there are quite a number of nuances to using it properly and to the etiquette around slating.
Camera Slate Info Labeling
Beyond just providing a sync point, one of the reasons you slate takes even if it’s an MOS shot is to burn in relevant info about what the shot is and the production it’s a part of. This helps the editor know what’s in a take before even previewing it.
The camera roll is the labeling for the card being shot on the camera. On most productions, the card roll numbers will start with the camera letter followed by the numeric order of the card the particular shot being slated is from. For example the first roll from “A camera” would be labeled as “A001” and as you shoot the first card out and move to the second card, the camera roll labeling would follow to “A002”. If you have multiple cameras, then typically you would label each camera’s roll number in this section or each camera would have it’s own slate.
This section contains the labeling for what the scene is. This could be a traditional scene number from a script or be something more descriptive such as an interviewee’s name. It all depends on the nature of the production. Whatever the naming convention, the scene name on the slate and the labeling in the sound recorder’s files needs to match. Beyond the scene name or number, there is often additional formatting to indicate the setup within a scene or label shots as pickups, VFX shots, and more.
Lettering Up for Different Setups
Anytime a camera position changes, a lens gets swapped, or any other drastic change to how a take is being shot happens, it becomes a new “setup”. While it may be within the same scene, for clear labeling purposes we need to introduce a character to represent the “setup” being different. Traditionally you would shoot your wide master first, but regardless of what order you shoot in your first setup gets the scene labeled without a letter designator. When a setup changes you add a letter and go through the alphabet for each new setup. For example your first setup would could be “Scene 52” and your second would be “Scene 52A” and so on. For larger scenes where you push beyond single letters, you can move into double letters. For example “Scene 52AA” or “Scene 52AB”.
On occasion takes need special formatting to indicate the shot is a “pick up”, is a shot for VFX, or is a reshoot. Typical formatting for pickups would be to add “-PU” after the setup designator to indicate to the editor this shot is a partial take that may “pickup” partway through the scene. This would look like “Scene 52A-PU” for example. Shots that are designated as a reshoot or for VFX may also have designators as prefixes for the scene labeling with “R” or “V” being used respectively. So for example a VFX shot might be labeled as “Scene V52A”.
This is the labeling for the take number in the scene and setup you are on. It’s very important that the slate take labeling and sound recorder’s take number match at all times. Each new take the take indicator counts upwards, and resets back to “1” anytime you go into a new “scene” or “setup”.
This label is what camera this slate is for in the given shot. If you are shooting with multiple cameras, this will either indicate how many cameras are rolling in this setup; For example, if you are shooting two cameras you may label the slate “A+B” where as if you went down to a single camera in another setup you would only label it as “A” or “B” depending which camera is being used. In some scenarios you may have multiple slates dedicated to their own cameras, so the “A” labeled slate denotes this slate is for the “A Camera” and the “B” labeled slate denotes it’s for the “B Camera”
This is a simple metadata labeling of the frame rate this take is being shot at. While the majority of the time this will probably be the project base rate (especially when shooting sync sound), there may be occasions when this needs to be relabeled for “off speed” or “high speed” shots.
Timecode & User Bits
Smart slates additionally contain a display that keeps a continuously running display of the current timecode value that matches metadata for the audio recorder and camera. This allows you to visually “burn in” the timecode into the camera frames providing another sync reference. This is especially useful for cameras that don’t natively take timecode such as DSLRs and Mirrorless cameras. When the sticks open on a timecode slate, the display turns on showing a realtime display of the timecode. Once the sticks close, most smart slates then additionally show on the display the user bits. User bits are user settable info embedded into the timecode, which often is used for things like shoot date. …Learn more about Timecode & Camera Sync
The shoot date is another piece of important info to be labeled on slate. While this may seem trivial for a single day shoot, it becomes very important on multiday productions. This gets labeled with the current date for the day you are filming.
The field is for labeling the title of the production. It’s quite common to shoot things out of order and when bouncing from episode to episode it’s important to not just label the larger project’s title but what episode from the larger show it belongs to. When labeling episode numbers you may do a naming convention such as “production title” – “episode number”, or something similar.
This is reserved for the name of the director. Make sure you spell it correctly! When in doubt double check the call sheet.
Director of Photography / Camera Operator
Like the director, typically the slate also gets labeled with the name of the director of photography or camera operator. While it’s typical to prioritize the DoP’s name, when shooting with multiple slates, it’s not uncommon to label the slates to match the individual operators on those cameras. However more often than not, when dealing with a single slate usually the DoP’s name just gets used across the board. whether they are operating or not.
It’s not uncommon to need to add some additional metadata to the slate to indicate something special about the shot, or info that may needed by the posy team to replicate the look in shot with their VFX. For MOS shots (or shots with out sound), it’s a common curtesy to label the shot “MOS” so the editor isn’t looking to find sound files that don’t exist. It may also be necessary for the VFX team to have info like filters or aperture labeled as well.
Why Slates have colored bars on the sticks?
Having either black and white or colored stripes across the sticks helps ensure the slate’s sticks are visible regardless of what the background behind them is. It’s a common misconception that colored sticks are used for color calibration in post, but this is not true. Colored slate sticks are not a substitute for shooting a color chip chart.
Proper Camera Slating Etiquette
Beyond just making sure the info on the slate is correct, there is quite a bit of nuance and etiquette around the methodology of how you actually slate.
Filling The Frame
Before cameras begin to roll, the slate should already be in place and at a distance from the lens that it fills the frame. This ensures the preview image of the first frame has the slate in it so the editor can see that info without needing to scrub through the footage to find when the slate was inserted. When holding the slate in frame the sticks should already be open so the timecode display is illuminated giving the editor a larger window to find a frame and match it with sync sound’s corresponding timecode.
Sometimes due to either camera positioning or action within a take, a “head slate” may not be possible so a “tail slate” gets called for. This essentially means instead of slating at the start of the take you instead slate at the end of the take or at the “tail” before camera and sound cut.
Traditionally tail slates should always be slated with the slate upside down to indicate it is a tail slate. While less relevant in productions shooting digitally, it’s still a best practice that is held over from the film era. When editing film, the editor would always cut to the left of the slate. If mistakenly slated right side up this means the slate could easily be cut off the take it corresponds to. By flipping tail slates upside down it prevents this from mistakenly happening. Once the take has been slated, you may only then flip the slate right side up to burn the metadata into the frame in the correct orientation.
When tail slating still verbalize the slate at the start of the take and verbally call “tails” “tail slate” or “tail sticks”.
When shooting close ups it is a common courtesy to use “soft sticks” or to close the sticks gently since it’s often right in front of talent’s face. Since soft sticks are quieter than a traditional slate clap, you should also call soft sticks out before slating to acknowledge for the editor that they should be listening for a soft close of the slate’s sticks in the audio files, which might otherwise be hard to find buried by miscellaneous noises.
Verbalizing Slate Info
The visual identifying info only shows up on camera, so it’s best to verbalize it while slating the cameras so that it’s picked up in the audio files as well. While the labeling should match between the sound meta data and the slate, by verbalizing it, it adds a layer of redundancy should the slate info get off or the sound labeling not match the slate. Typically you should verbalize the scene labeling, take number, and call the mark. For example prior to closing the slate’s sticks you may call “Scene 52 Apple Take 1, A & B Common Mark”. This is then burned into the audio files as well as the picture. Additionally to avoid confusion, typically letters would be called out in the nato phonetic alphabet.
To avoid confusion it’s best to call the individual marker points when you close the sticks of the slate making a “clap sound”. This prevents the editor from mistaking miscellaneous background sounds as a sync point. If you can slate multiple cameras with a single slate point then that’s called a “common mark” however if you need to slate multiple cameras separately, then each cameras corresponding mark should be individually called. For example you may use “A mark”, “B & C Common Mark” or any other variation therein the scenario calls for. If slating for only one camera its best practice to specify its only for a specific camera, like “A Only Mark”
If the camera or sound misses the sticks closing then “second sticks” gets called for to mark with either camera or sound catching what wasn’t caught the first time. Anytime second sticks are necessary you should always verbalize “Second Sticks” to indicate to the editor that this is the mark that should be used as a sync point rather than the first one.
Slating MOS Takes
A common practice when slating takes without sound is to hold the slate with your fingers through the sticks to indicate the shot is MOS without ever closing the sticks on camera. The reason behind this practice is that the slate then still burns the info into the camera take for labeling but because the sticks are held open the timecode display is still running. This can be especially helpful when you still need to sync multiple cameras even if there isn’t sound or if you are using any sort of timecode take logging with the script supervisor.
There is a lot of nuance that goes into slating that 2nd ACs need to be aware of….fortunately my friend Christian Collin’s has an article that picks up where this one left off. He covers everything from gaging distances from lenses for the slate in order to fill the frame, how to slate AFS takes or After False Start takes, and the cadence & timing of slating takes. Check out his advanced guide: ‘Slate Like A Pro: Thoughtful Tips for 2nd ACs On How To Slate “Well”‘