A clapperboard — sometimes called a clapper, slate, sticks, time slate, marker or one of several other names — is an important part of the camera department's toolbox used during principal photography. It has several different functions. The information written on it helps to organise the use of the filmed material in post-production. It also synchronises sound and picture recording by providing an absolute visual and auditory reference point that marks the very beginning of a particular camera's attempt to capture a scene or scene-part.
Typically small, hand-held devices, clappers have two pieces of wood or plastic hinged together so that they can be brought together to make a sharp "clap". This noise is used as an absolute auditory reference for the synchronisation of the soundtrack of the scene. On most occasions during the filming of the BBC Wales version of Doctor Who, the board has had the traditional colours of "absolute" white and black, arranged in diagonal slants across the clapping mechanism. These colours are used because they're visible in almost any lighting conditions. However, the production team occasionally use multi-coloured clappers.
Information on a clapper
Typically, clappers in the BBC Wales era have included the series number and the director and director of photography of a scene. Rarely, the producer's name has also been present. Perhaps more crucially, the clapper will contain:
- a letter designating the camera which produced the shot
- a slate number (that is, the number assigned to the particular shot)
- a take number or code
- the date of filming
- A number assigned to a roll of film
- The episode number (by believed broadcast order at the time of filming)
- The scene number
The clapboard also gives an indication of the basic lighting conditions the scene is supposed to have. The 2AC can choose between "interior" and "exterior", and "day" and "night". This is the only part of the clapboard which doesn't actually indicate the conditions as they are, but actually the conditions as they're supposed to be in the final product. Thus, a shot filmed on an exterior location at noon could be marked with "EXT/NIGHT", if the director of photography is shooting "day for night".
If the scene being shot is one shot by, or having later composition by, the visual effects department, the clapper will be given a code corresponding to a schedule worked out by the post-production supervisor or her staff. In this way, the visual effects department can better keep track of what special effect shot goes with which principal photography shot.
Generation and maintenance of clapper info
Although clapper info is used by a variety of post production departments, it's important to stress the work of three people who are foundational to the information the clappers contain.
The information begins with the writer, whose scripts designate scene numbers. These scene numbers are usually not tampered with, even if certain scenes are cut from the script. Scene numbers that are cut are merely omitted from the later flow of information, without causing a subsequent renumbering of the remaining scenes.
These scene numbers are then written on the clapper, generally underneath the roll number. On Doctor Who the person who physically writes on the clapper is the assistant cameraman. If there are two assistants listed in the credits, the assistant in charge of actually writing the information on the slate will usually be the second one listed — that is, the "2AC". The 2AC is sometimes also called — but never credited on Doctor Who as – the "clapper loader". This title is perhaps more descriptive of the actual job. Not only does he or she "load the clapper" with information, but he or she physically loads the camera with film. Thus, he or she is the person most aware of the minutae of the "roll number" — probably the most vital piece of information on the entire clapper. Typically unheralded — and never, as of 2010, included in an interview on Doctor Who Confidential — the 2AC's job is absolutely vital to almost every other department. He or she starts the flow of information to the post-production departments.
His or her counterpart in post is the assistant editor, whose job it is to organise all incoming foootage for the editor. For reasons of efficiency, however, almost all members of the post will organise their planning around the assistant editor's organisational scheme, which in turn is based on the scene number the writer provided in pre-production and the clapper loader gave in production.
Use of clapper info by production staff
Almost everyone in every stage of production uses at least a part of the clapper information to accomplish their tasks in the preparation of the episode. However, there are perhaps three people who use the information most intently, aside from the editor himself.
The sound design team use the physical "clap" of the slate to synchronise the sound recording. Using the clap as an absolute point of reference, they can perfectly align the visuals with the audio. Having an auditory anchor is essential to begin the process of layering in additional sounds. This anchor also makes it possible for the editor to later trim and reposition the scenes without fear that the sound might suddenly be out of synch.
The visual effects department needs the clapper info because their own work requires a separate numbering system. A single frame of film might require several different shots, as the visual effect required might take several different "layers" of filmed effects or CGI to accomplish. Thus, they need an internal system of numbering that they can then have the 2AC refer to with a single number on the clapper. The editor can later then request the shots from visual effects by referring to that number.
Finally, the colourist needs the visual clues from the clapper to establish a baseline. Knowing what absolute black and absolute white look like under the lighting conditions of the shot is key to being able to subsequently grade the entire episode to a single colour standard.
Use of clapper info by fans
Fans who take pictures of public location filming often snap photographs of clappers. They are the first clue fans get as to what an episode might contain. Because slates contain episode and scene information, fans can sometimes successfully piece together information about a scene just by looking at the episode and scene information on a clapper. If it's the right scene, they might even be able to guess at series-ending details. Clandestinely-photographed clappers can also be the first confirmation that fans are able to have that a particular director has been hired.
During the run-up to Matt Smith's first series, photographs of clappers fueled the fire over how the series was going to be officially numbered. As can be seen in the photograph at top left, the clappers during production of this series clearly say "series 1". Since the series was actually the fifth produced by BBC Wales, photographs of clappers helped confirm the "series numbering controversy" to which Steven Moffat eventually referred in Doctor Who Magazine issue 417.