The Fascinating History of the Clapperboard for Film and Video Production
Every shot starts with one, but what do you really know about the iconic film clapperboard? Let’s take a look at its history and its present.
In many ways, the art of filmmaking is now ingrained with how audiences watch and understand the medium. Case in point, the clapperboard is an instantly recognizable symbol for filmmaking — more specifically for the action of starting a scene. We see it all the time in popular media depicting filmmaking dating back to the earliest days of the craft.
However, while the clapperboard might be recognizable, its use might not actually be accurately understood by most. What does the clapperboard actually do? What purpose does it serve for the filmmakers? Also, if you were to wander onto a random film set — whether it’s a digital feature, a commercial, or some corporate video production — are you actually going to see a clapperboard?
Let’s take a look at the vast (and surprisingly fascinating) history of the clapperboard and how its use for film and video production has evolved over the years.
What is a Clapperboard?
To answer “what is a clapperboard” you really have to define its function. Wikipedia says a clapperboard is the “device used in filmmaking and video production to assist in synchronizing of picture and sound.” Which is pretty open-ended, as there are actually plenty of ways filmmakers could assist themselves in synchronizing picture and sound.
However, the literal clapperboard that we’re used to seeing is a rectangular white board with a hinged top piece that opens and closes. This “clapper” function is loud, sharp, and instantly recognizable at this point.
The clapperboard is also not always called a clapperboard, and, in fact, has had many different names over the years:
- Sound marker
- Sync slate
- Dumb slate
- Time slate
- Cue board
- Film sticks
- Sound sticks
And many, many more…
First Uses and History
The clapperboard was very much an invention of necessity, and variations of the board date back to the earliest days of even silent cinema. A “slate board” could be found on silent film sets as a way to record and identify the type of film stock that was being used for the shoot.
The hinged, clappy part of the clapperboard was the innovation of Australian studio head F. W. Thring. When pioneering sound engineer Leon M. Leon thought to combine Thring’s hinged sticks with the slate board, the clapperboard we now know was born.
How to Use a Clapperboard
As you can see in the video above, the basics to using a clapperboard are pretty, well, basic and straightforward. The person responsible for operating the clapperboard for any production is usually a “clapper loader” or a camera assistant like the 2nd AC. This clapper loader, working in conjunction with the script supervisor, will properly update the information presented between every shot and scene.
Ideally, at the beginning of every take the clapperboard will be presented, clearly in view and focus, for a second or two. Then when the clapper board operator gets clearance they will strike the sticks to create the sharp and recognizable sound.
As far as what information is included on a clapperboard, there is very little room for variations as the clapperboard has become very systematic over the years. For the sake of continuity from shot to shot and even production to production, clapperboards usually include the following in this order:
- Production title
- Name of the director
- Name of the director of photography (DP)
- Information on the scene
The scene information can vary slightly between American and European productions, but will contain the following:
- Scene number
- Camera angle
- Take number
Variations and Alternate Uses
Those are the basics, but as with anything in film and video production, there are plenty of examples of situations that require variations or new alternatives.
In addition to providing a voice slate once sound has reached speed, clapper loaders will sometimes perform a “Motor Only Sync (MOS) Take.” These are shots where audio recording is not needed — so while the clap function might be unnecessary, the clapper loader will still need to provide the visual information. So, instead of performing a standard clap, they will put their hand between the sticks to further indicate to the editor that the sound is not needed.
There’s also a “tail slate” technique where the slate is done at the end of a take. These are much less common and are generally reserved for moments when the director deems it necessary to help actors focus on their performances, or when some mechanism of the camera movement or focus simply can’t be adjusted to capture the slate at the beginning.
Digital Filmmaking and Modern Clapperboards
As we’ve moved into modern filmmaking, the standard chalkboard and dry-erase style clapperboards have of course transitioned as well. Modern digistlates can be used to change and display all the relevant information digitally, as well as display SMPTE time code to further help with the pulling of metadata. There are also some other cool breakthroughs with digital slates and apps that are 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 out just fine. This is especially true when shooting digitally, thanks to built-in file names and metadata and the many editing plugins and functions that automatically sync audio and video files.
Ultimately, it comes down to your filmmaking style and the specific needs of your production. A clapperboard will always be a useful tool, a helpful reminder, and a dependable source of information (should any of the digital alternatives fail you at some point).
I’d also argue, just by the sheer iconic nature of the clapperboard, having one on set can help legitimize any production, as well as provide that classic sharp *CLACK* that reminds the cast and crew of the importance of every shot.
For more film history, on-set tips, and camera tricks, check out some of these articles:
- Understanding and Implementing Plot Structure for Films and Screenplays
- The Different Ways to Expertly Use and Shoot Slow Motion
- How Filmmakers Can Harness the Power of Method Actors
- Smash Cut Audio: An Exciting Edit for Your Next Film
- 100+ Hot FREE Assets for Your Next Video Project
Cover image via Lia Koltyrina.