'Clap!' On Set, The Signature Sound Of The Slate On a movie set, every scene and every take gets "slated" during filming, and there's that distinctive clap sound we all know. But what's it for? The job of the clapper, revealed.
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'Clap!' On Set, The Signature Sound Of The Slate

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

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

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OK, other than popcorn, what brings movies to mind, the roar of the MGM Lion?


GREENE: The "20th Century Fox Fanfare?"


GREENE: Or this iconic sound?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Scene 97, Take one. Mark.


GREENE: But what's that clap sound for? Well, NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg has some insights. Susan is beginning her Oscar's tradition of reporting on odd movie jobs.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Here we go, rolling.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: It's called a Clapper-Board or Slate, although film folks have other ways to describe it.

LARRY NIELSEN: Miki is going to be hitting the sticks on this one.

STAMBERG: Assistant cameraman, Larry Nielsen. His assistant Miki will slap one part of his Slate board onto another, like two sticks. 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 old 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.


STAMBERG: On a chilly L.A. morning on this set, the film is "Walk of Shame," second assistant cameraman Miki Milan Janicin, is about to get slapping. In addition to hitting the sticks, he marks the scene and take numbers on a white Plexiglas board, attached just below the sticks.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Roll camera and Slate please.


STAMBERG: Slate. Please because, as Miki explains...

MIKI MILAN JANICIN: They were actually made out of slate, originally, and they would use chalk.

STAMBERG: That's how you've seen in it the old movies, wooden sticks above a chalkboard. These days, it's a fancier contraption.

JANICIN: And now, this is what's called a Smart Slate.

STAMBERG: The smart part is there's a digital readout on the Slate that runs like a clock in real time: 8 o'clock, nine minutes, four seconds, and so on. The digital chip inside is similar to chips loaded into the camera and the sound recording. So they can later be easily synchronized.

But if they do that, they don't need this.


JANICIN: Milan that's in case all this technology fails. We still have that as a back up.

STAMBERG: Of course, back-up. 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. But Miki Janicin says there is the occasional director of photography who wants to use the old Slates. So he always has one of those in his cart, too.

There's an old fashioned wooden clapper.



STAMBERG: This is absolutely low technology. Because there's no digital, there's nothing.

JANICIN: Some people, because this is called a Smart Slate, call this a dumb Slate. I call it a Standard Slate.


STAMBERG: They're ready for the next scene, an actress running through a parking lot. The script supervisor gives Miki the new scene number.

And you're taking a big magic marker, like we all use at home...


STAMBERG: ...and you're writing on that...

JANICIN: On my Smart Slate.

STAMBERG: On your Smart Slate.

He writes: Scene 95 Take 1.

OK, so now you're ready to go with it.

JANICIN: I'm ready to go. And rolling. Hail the marker.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Ready and three, two, one, action.

STAMBERG: You know, there is something so reassuring about that signature film-making symbol, even though it has essentially been replaced by technology. One director of photography told us 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.


STAMBERG: Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi, in the film "Ed Wood."


STAMBERG: I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.


GREENE: And Susan will continue her reporting on odd movie jobs tomorrow. We'll learn about how films stay in focus.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.


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