Every shot starts with one, but what do you really know about the legendary clapperboard? Let's take a look at its history and present.
In many ways, the art of filmmaking today is shaped by how audiences see and understand the medium. In this case, the flap is an instantly recognizable symbol for filmmaking – more precisely, for starting a scene. We see it all the time on popular media depicting filmmaking from the earliest days of the craft.
While the door may be recognizable, most of you may not fully understand how to use it. What does the flap actually do? What purpose does it serve for the filmmakers? If you go on a random movie set – be it a digital feature, commercial, or corporate video production – are you actually seeing a clapperboard?
Let's take a look at the great (and surprisingly fascinating) history of the clapperboard, and how its use for film and video production has evolved over the years.
What is a flap?
To answer what a fold is, you really need to define its function. According to Wikipedia, a flap is the "device that is used in filmmaking and video production to support the synchronization of picture and sound". That's pretty open, as there are actually many ways that filmmakers can help each other synchronize image and sound.
However, the literal flap we're used to is a rectangular white board with a pivoting top that can be opened and closed. This "clapper" function is loud, sharp and immediately recognizable at this point.
The flap is also not always referred to as a flap and has had many different names over the years:
- Sound markers
- Sync slate
- Stupid slate
- Time schedule
- Cue board
- Film sticks
- Sound stays
And many, many more …
First uses and history
The clapperboard was an invention of necessity, and variations on the panel date back to the earliest days of silent cinema. A "board" could be found on silent film sets to record and identify the type of footage that was used in the shooting.
The hinged part of the flap was the innovation of the Australian studio head F. W. Thring. When the pioneering sound engineer Leon M. Leon thought of combining Thring's folding sticks with the slate board, the flap that we now know was born.
Use of a clapper board
As you can see in the video above, the basics of using a clapperboard are pretty, good, simple, and straightforward. The person who is responsible for the operation of the flap for a production is usually a "folding loader" or a camera assistant like the 2nd AC. This clapper loader, in collaboration with the script supervisor, properly updates the information displayed between each shot and scene.
Ideally, at the beginning of each recording, the flap should be clearly displayed for a second or two. When the clapper operator is given clearance, he or she slaps the sticks to produce a sharp and recognizable sound.
As for the information on a flap, there is very little room for variation as the flap has become very systematic over the years. For shot-to-shot and even production-to-production continuity, shingles typically contain the following in this order:
- Production title
- Director's name
- Cinematographer's Name (DP)
- Information about the scene
Scene information may vary slightly between American and European productions, but includes the following:
- Scene number
- Camera angle
- Take the number
Here's an insightful (and pretty funny) video from the set of Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds with all the tablets that Tarantino's infamous lace-maker Geraldine Brezca presents.
Variations and Alternative Uses
Those are the basics, but as with anything in film and video production, there are many examples of situations that require variation or new alternatives.
Folding loaders not only provide a voice list as soon as the sound has reached the speed, but sometimes also perform a "Motor Only Sync (MOS) recording". These are recordings that do not require audio recording. Although the clap feature may not be required, the folding loader must still provide the visual information. Instead of doing a standard clap, they put their hand between the sticks to further indicate to the editor that the sound is not needed.
There is also a "tail slate" technique in which the slate is created at the end of a shot. These are far less common and generally reserved for moments when the director deems it necessary to help actors focus on their performances, or when some mechanism of camera movement or focus simply cannot be adjusted to accommodate the Record blackboard at the beginning.
Digital filmmaking and modern clapperboards
When we turned to modern filmmaking, of course, the standard blackboard and dry erase style boards also changed. Modern digistlates can be used to digitally change and display all relevant information as well as display the SMPTE time code to further assist in retrieving metadata. There are also some other cool breakthroughs with digital slates and apps that are well worth checking out.
Of course there are plenty of examples of film and video professionals working without slates or clapperboards on their productions, and it works just fine. This is especially true for digital recordings thanks to built-in file names and metadata as well as the numerous editing plugins and functions with which audio and video files are automatically synchronized.
Ultimately, it depends on your film style and the specific needs of your production. A hatch is always a useful tool, a helpful reminder and a reliable source of information (should one of the digital alternatives fail at some point).
I would also argue that just because of the iconic nature of the clapperboard, one on set can legitimize a production and deliver that classic sharp * CLACK * that reminds the cast and crew of the importance of every recording.
For more movie history, on-set tips, and camera tricks, check out some of these articles:
Cover picture about Lia Koltyrina.