Home of Professional Cinematography since 1996

Sync without Slate

Okay, I'm in day seven of a sixty-day Super16 documentary shoot. MY camera package, given away at a song to get the gig. LTR-54, Zeiss Primes, Cooke zoom, all fine-tooth-combed by Abel CineTech just for this job. Sound recordist using DAT and a timecode SmartSlate. Pretty high profile stuff, big client, big subject, international distribution, etc.

>Now, here's the problem :

>The director seems freaked by the slating process. I was told she had experience, she's got a bunch of Emmys on the shelf. However my suspicions are now that everything she's done in the past was videotape. I dunno, perhaps she's not willing to fess up. Anyway . . . big impromptu meeting early this a.m. during prep.

>Director states "the slate is getting in the way, it's taking too much time," she just wants to roll and let the lab & transfer people (DuArt NYC) deal with it later. Open jaws all around as the crew collectively picks their mandibles up from the floor. Tried to explain to this director, privately and aside, that slates are something that's been happening since the late 1920's and she's not alone, everyone would love to just roll when the mood strikes, but if we don't follow a few technical procedures, he's going to take it in the shorts, budget-wise, after the poor night chaps at DuArt finish trying to sync this stuff.

>What we tried today, as a compromise, is not "slapping" the smartslate. Sound rolls, at speed then I roll the camera and point at the slate (sticks closed). A.C. opens the sticks, starting the code display. A beat. I pan to scene and begin. Totally silent marking. About as unobtrusive as I can imagine. Please, no suggestions about XTR-Prods and camera timecode. Love to do it, but it's not in the budget and not in the cards. Everyone (and I mean EVERYONE) knew this up front when they gave me the gig. They were just happy to get "one-day weeks" on the camera package from me. Aside from the XTR, any suggestions? I'm open to any ideas from the list, political or technical.

Jim "could be a long 53 more" Furrer

VGG Systems, Inc.

Dark Street Films

Very bad idea. (Preaching to the Choir?) If not impossible to sync certainly excruciatingly painful for the telecine guys or the editors. What we tried today, as a compromise, is not "slapping" the > smartslate. Sound rolls, at speed then I roll the camera and point at the > slate (sticks closed).

>Try placing (hiding) the slate somewhere unobtrusive in the set, or next to it, but in full view of the camera, with the sitcks open and the display running. Let the sound man roll continuously. (DAT stock costs about 5 bucks for an hour tape.) Roll camera at will, and point it at the runningslate at the head of the shot, (tail slates are nasty to sync as well) but if you can't get it at the head, be sure to get a shot of ther unning display before you cut (or roll out!!) That is why it is better to get it at the head just in case.

>I have used this technique with kids, animals and skittish "actors" with success.

>Good Luck.

Ed Colman

SuperDailies Cinematograper

Supervised Video Dailies


A "bloop slate" will get you out of this. A small box that generates a tone and lights up a large red LED on it whenever its button is pressed. Plug it into the DAT, at the end of a take pan towards the recordist and he presses the button. OK they're end slates, but at least they're sync marks AKA used to make a slate with this built in, a " King Clapper" I had a variant, that got nicked, that had a double LED number display that incremented by one every time the button was pressed.


>Jim that seems a pretty good way to go. I would suggest a few small modifications. I've heard that in Telecine there is an "Offset" that occurs. Sometimes the smart slate numbers and the sound don't line up. Please don't flame me, I've heard about it, I've seen it. I'm sure that it doesn't happen anymore, but in the past it has. So I would suggest that for the first take of the day ( Every day) , BEFORE shooting any interview stuff. Roll ten seconds with the slate open, and sound running at speed, and then Clap the sticks, and run 5 more seconds.

>This should give the Transfer guys enough to establish what the offset is, if any.

>Remember Timecode gear takes at least 5 seconds to come up to speed and lock ( That includes the Labs transfer equipment and Decks). Then I would just leave the slate somewhere out of the way, Always open. Prop it off in the corner, or next to the sound man if possible on these interviews. That way, you can start and stop whenever you want without alerting the A.C. to open the slate. Best bet is to leave it just out of your widest frame, and that way you can zoom in and grab it, and get back to your subject with the least amount noticeable camera movement to distract the Interview subject. Syncing in Telecine this way should be pretty quick. Aaton's Indaw is usable with Slates, but you'd have to clap them, so that is out. The other thing to remember is that Du-Art provides a "POST SYNCHING" service. AFTER you do your transfers they will synch up the Footage, This costs about $110 an hour, with the time code slate, it should be pretty much close to a real time charge. The Man to talk to about this is Dominic Rom ( who is on this list. You can Also talk to Joe Mungi at DuArt. I believe he is the HEAD of DuART Video.) Good luck, Usual Disclaimer I do not Work for Du-Art, although I do occasionally receive T-Shirts from them, along with their usual excellent Service.

Steven Gladstone

Cinematographer - Gladstone Films


Whats wrong with end boards? Working on a seventies vetinary drama we used them all the time coudn't slate at front with the actors arm up a cows backside Editors are not fond of them but its better than nothing

Every single documentary soundman with whom I have worked in New York has a bloop light rig. (It has been a few years, but they can't have gone the way of 8 track tapes and carburetors yet.) A Bloop light is a box with a couple of nine volt batts in it, a three digit LED display on it, a tone generator, a read pilot light on the top, and a momentary switch which wakes it up. It cables to the Nagra (remember analog tape?) and sounds a tone on the tape at the same moment that it lights the pilot light and lights up the LED display. It is silent on set - the sound man has it on a curly cable so he can hold it up, or out, or down, or whatever helps the cameraman get it in frame. Every time he slates a take, he increments the slate by one number so later his notes can correlate to the film rolls. It is unobtrusive - and self-contained - all the cameraman has to do is find the soundman who will hit the button as soon as he knows the camera is rolling. Very low key - and self illuminated.

>The pilot light is there in case the shot is too wide to read the numbers or the scene is too bright to read the LED's - at least you have a synch point even if you don't have the take number. I realize time-code is everyone's best friend, but a good old-fashioned bloop light requires no pre-roll or anything. If you need help finding one, I have a few soundmen who are not too proud to talk to me...I can try to locate one for you.

>Let me know off list if this is neccessary. I would think that this is a rentable item, but it may be something that you have to buy.

Mark H. Weingartner

Lighting and VFX for Motion Pictures

>I used the same bloop slate as we called them for many years and may still have or know where one is, feel free to give me a call. A comment on another post regarding aaton and time code . I have an new (for me) xtr with time code and have shot with no slates on all my projects with no problems. We don't use the origin C just jam the code every couple hours.


I can understand your director's point of view regarding slating. I have worked with an Academy Award winning documentary director who absolutely despised them. He felt they constantly re-introduced artificiality into a "verite'" situation; reminded the subjects of "Hollywood" with every camera roll. Back in the days before DAT and Timecode, we used to use a "bloop light" It was an unobtrusive little box with a light and a tone generator, which the sound recordist fed into his Nagra (remember those?) and, when aimed at the lens and fired, gave a fairly decent sync mark. I'm not suggesting you throw out a couple decades of technology, but you might try an expansion of Ed coleman's suggestion to stash an open SmartSlate on the "set" (another hateful word for documentarians).

>However, perhaps you can find a time code reader which doesn't "Smack" of Hollywood (pun intended). I once grabbed a sync mark for a music video by shooting at a TV screen displaying a window of timecode generated by the playback recording. There are other LED display boxes, which will read out time code that can be shot with the camera (thus marking sync)

>Perhaps one of those will do. At worst case, try disguising that slate so it is not recognizable as a "Movie Making" tool. I really have seen the behavior shift in a documentary subject when a clap-board was introduced. We once had a bloop light blow out in the middle of an intense interview. (I was the AC on the job) The only reasonable solution was to start using a clap stick. I did my best to be unobtrusive, but using it totally changed the reaction of the interview subject. She became much more aware that the feelings she was expressing were going to be "seen" by the whole world, and became guarded in her responses.

>The Director noticed this, and to his credit, managed to get her back on track. Subsequent camera rolls were tail-slated with "mic taps" (the sound recordist dips the boom into the frame and taps it with his finger tips, thus creating a sync reference). My point in bringing up this anecdote, Jim, is that your Director probably has a good reason for not wanting to use slates.

>Do your best to find a reasonable solution. You won't be sorry.

Joe Di Gennaro, SOC

Director of (documentary) Photography

Wow, thanks for all the great responses and suggestions, most of them overnight (for me at least)! Don't you people ever sleep? I've slept on the problem, re-read my original post and think I'll provide a couple more details I may have short-ended in the first post. For this director, it's both the "obtrusiveness" AND the preroll/marking time.

>If she sees something happening, she wants to roll immediately. Five seconds for sound to roll and lock and another one or two for camera marking, and (for her) the moment is gone. Hmmmm.... I'll check into a bloop slate, liking that idea, especially the comment about no pre-roll required. Yeah, I'm trying hard to not tail slate, I understand tails are no fun and costly to sync. We've slapped the mic a number of times, that's a bit tough since there's a boom pole, usually, and there's no second assistant! And my First is spending most of his time in the bag, it's usually just me and the audio person in the thick of the action, and ANY cabling between us would be a bad idea. Video assist? Nope. Jeff K. mentioned the garage door opener bloop . . . dig around and let me know more. Also, I'll immediately start providing the "timecode off-set footage" at the beginning of the day, something several of you mentioned and something not none, to date.

>Several mentions too, of zooming into the T.C. numbers on the free-running slate. I wish. About half the verite stuff is wide-open on the SuperSpeeds, there's no light for a zoom. Readable T.C. numbers are a big concern for me, as mostly I'm on the 12mm and 16mm glass and wide open. My Sound Operator suggested starting with the slate closed and THEN opening it to camera, finally closing it again.

>He claims there's an audio marker that goes down on the DAT when the clapper is opened (I dunno, that's what he says) and I'm hoping the audio marker is a backup, should the LED display be too soft or too far away to be readable. Closing it while on camera provides the User Bits info to the display, which in this case is the Roll number, and that couldn't hurt. Special thanks to Rick Anthony at DuArt for responding, I'll be talking to him tonight. And to RENREL, who's offering me the use of his bloop slate, if he can find it ;-) Not that it matters, but about half of the participants in front of the lens have traveled over to the States from U.K., and in our spare time the Sound Op and myself help explain U.S. currency to the British so they can use the vending machines here.

Jim Furrer

VGG Systems, Inc. Dark Street Films

>The following is excellent advice if you are going to use stealth slating. In fact, we publish a Telecine Tips we distribute to our clients that says exactly the same thing.

>So I would suggest that for the first take of the day ( Every day) , BEFORE shooting any interview stuff. Roll ten seconds with the slate open, and sound running at speed, and then Clap the sticks, and run 5 more seconds. Yep, that's it Remember Timecode gear takes at least 5 seconds to come up to speed and lock ( That includes the Labs transfer equipment and Decks). Also an essential detail. Steven, you must have been in many sessions listening to the colorist curse the short pre roll and seen what a pain it can be. Thank you. AFTER you do your transfers they will synch up the Footage, This costs about $110 an hour, with the time code slate, it should be pretty much close to a real time charge. It can go pretty fast, but if the above technical details are not adhered to, it can also be a miserable ($$) experience, Disclaimer: I do not work for Steven Gladstone or any of his affiliates

>Ed "pre roll" Colman

Worked on a doc in 35mm where the director did'nt want to slate because he considered it would interrupt the "flow" with his subjects. He would tap me on the shoulder to run camera and tap me again to cut (quite annoying) . The sound man(who had been ordered never to stop recording) built a little box with a small light that he would put in front of the lens each time I rolled. A cable to his DAT would give a tone simmultaneously with the light. Had no trouble in post. The sound man was always nervous to miss a roll. But I relaxed and enjoyed my framming and lighting.

>Alejandro "let the soundman sweat" Wiedemann :

>>OK, here's an idea straight off the top of my head, and I've been chasing my two->year-old around all day so I might have missed something important in my thinking. >But, what if you ran the timecode as time of day and used a digital watch set to the >time on the dat?

>Leave the dat rolling and shoot the watch when you roll camera. I know its not real sync by a long shot but its better than leaving it completely for the post house, at least they'll start close. I've actually shot the 'code readout on the dat machine for a slate, but that only works in the right light conditions. There's my two cents, might be worth less.

>Good luck,

>Christopher B. Seivard

>I'll check into a bloop slate, liking that idea, especially the comment >about no pre-roll required. Yeah, I'm trying hard to not tail slate, I >understand tails are no fun and costly to sync. The bloop slate sounds like the best idea I have heard so far, given your parameters. But - even though you do not need the pre-roll time during the actual shooting, the telecine will still needs the 5 to 7 seconds to lock up for the transfer. The colorist will have to "rock and roll" the bloop in order to sync it with the sound cue. He will then have to backtime (set an offset) the take to give the machines time to lock up. So, all in all, about as time consuming (if not a little more) as tail slating. Learned this the hard way when, on one of my first films, my sound guy didn't leave enough pre-roll time and we spent an extra 4 hours syncing the film in the telecine. $$$$$$$.

>Brent Reynolds

Thanks for all the responses to my posting a couple of weeks ago. You remember . . . long seven-month documentary shoot, Aaton LTR-54 and DAT, director bothered by the slating process, etc.

>After replying privately to queries from Geoff, Mark W. and Jeff Kreines, I'm now posting this follow-up for those interested in how it all turned out. Although the bloop slate seemed universally lauded by the respondents to my first post, all the responses were (obviously) from the viewpoint of the CAMERA department.

>On the other hand, everyone from the SOUND department viewpoint pretty much says "thumbs down" the idea of a bloop slate, including my Sound Op on the shoot and those syncing the transfers at the lab. Jeff Kreines referred me to Glen Trew at Trew Audio Services here in the States, and Glen gave me a very interesting work-around for this whole "timecode roll-up speed" issue which had been imposing a 5 to 7 second audio pre-roll on every take, and this delay is part of my director's objections to the slating process.

>Glen says, "don't run the DAT timecode in Free Run, but rather in Record Run mode."

>This way the timecode count is contiguous for the entire DAT cassette with no "jumps" in numbers between takes. The "preroll" the lab syncing guys need now becomes the tail of the previous take (as Glen put it, "at the end of a two-hour DAT tape they have two hours of preroll, if they want").

>Set the code so hour one (1:00:00:00) is reel 1, hour two is reel 2 (2:00:00:00) and one no longer needs to bother with using the User Bits data for entering the roll number, which means we don't have to close the SmartSlate clapper to display that info, which shaves off a few more seconds in slating.

>My Sound Op has graciously offered to carry the slate and mark all the takes which will make this all possible. Downside to this method is the slate code display cannot run "untethered" but must be constantly updated either via a permanent cable from the DAT or by use of a wireless TC xmitter/receiver link (which we can rent). This is what both my Sound Op and the folks doing the syncing at the lab would prefer over any "bloop" slate because with timecode on DAT and film negative syncing is automated, and even with my LTR-54 and no film neg code the audio side of the syncing process is still automated.

>The subject of ND on the slate came up, with reminders that if shooting wide open you may find that the LED's on the slate burn out, even on the low setting. ND 6 mentioned as a problem solver here. However . . . my personal choice for years is not ND for this purpose. My helpful hint? Rather than ND, try CTB or ToughBlue 50. I've been using CTB (that's what we call it here, Color Temp Blue, basically 5600K Correction gel) instead of ND on SmartSlates for years.

>Since there's very little blue in the wavelengths from the red L.E.D. segments on the slate, the CTB gel does two things. It efficiently slices down the overly bright L.E.D.s and it totally removes the infrared component that tends to so quickly over-saturate the emulsion's red/magenta layer and produce that fuzzy, out-of-focus effect on the timecode numbers.

>Try the blue gel gag instead of the ND, it's amazing how it sharpens up the numbers and makes them more readable on film, and even to your eye, for that matter.

Jim "only 6 months to go"Furrer

VGG Systems, Inc. Dark Street Films

>Yes, an excellent suggestion. In fact, we reccommend using this method whenever possible. A few sound mixers do. It does totally eliminate the pre roll issue, which, believe it or not, happens far too frequently even on big dollar commercial productions. The usual objection is the need to continually feed code to the slate, but it makes syncing in telecine a breeze. And the sound mixer is never caught off guard by a quick roll. Short pre roll can double the time needed to sync even the most carefully photographed footage. the Blue gell trick is one we will pass on to our clients,

>Thanks Jim.

Ed Colman

SuperDailies Cinematograper Supervised Video Dailies

>Sorry I jumped in late. My Arri 16BL had a tiny light that could fog a frame, built right inside the gate. My soundman had a transmitter that put a beep on the Stellavox and flashed the light. This was only used at those times that a clap or even a bloopslate with numbers would interfere with the subject. I believe that Stuart French and I devised the first electronically numbered slate in 1967, based on a digital clock face. In the late 70's there was a technician at the NFB, Andy something who built a barcode generator (and reader) that printed between the sprocket holes. I believe Aaton had a system that put readable numbers on the other side, but Super16 was just introduced so that wouldn't work. And Kodak had some kind of scheme that would put the SMPTE code over the whole back of 35mm film, very thinly coated with a magnetic layer.

>What happened to that?

Robert Rouveroy csc The Hague, Holland

Ttime is precious... waste it wisely

>What happened to that? 'Twas called "DataCode" and never commercially developed. The for-runner of Kodak Keykode numbers (introduced in '89), the latent machine-readable barcode replicating the human-readable key numbers printed on the edge of the film. Today, the only Kodak film with magnetic back coating is Advantix film for still cameras.

Don Ver Ploeg

Kodak consultant

>Sorry, I'm late to this as well , but reading the posts jogged my memory. Nagra had a companion system in which instead of a bloop tone on the tape, the 60 cycle pilot tone would be interupted when the in camera frame fogging light flashed. Using the Nagra SLO (Sync lock oscilloscope and an electronic pen.a start mark would be made on the full coat to correspond to the film flash. We never had great luck with the pen -- it required a Swiss-like level of cleanliness that was often not available in documentary situations. (Jeff Kreines, who probably has the last functioning example of such a device, can tell us the name & model #) Interupting the sync signal could also be a means of signalling the sound recordist since the maltese cross on the Nagra could be made to flicker by a button on the back of the 16 BL. Even if he were not watching, many a sound man could actually feel it -- it was mechanical, not electronic. I believe it was Dana Fuller of San Francisco who came up with a system of using walkie talkies to transmit the sync signal, thus eliminating the sync cable. If memory serves, he also came up with idea of using Accutron tuning forks for the sync signal also to eliminate the "umbilical " cord. Of course, both of these systems were shortly superseded by crystal sync, and both of these systems went through batteries like crazy. Serious documentarians eventually went to silver batteries which were very expensive, heavy, and difficult to charge when they didn't melt motel outlets, but they sure packed a wallop when they were new. Folks claimed to have started trucks with them. On multi-camera shoots where slating was not possible and only one camera could be synced to the Nagra, for the cutaway and close up cameras we would try to shoot a few seconds of a clock or even a wrist watch with a second hand; if the synced camera also shot the clock at the start of the roll, this would at least get the editor in the right vicinity. For the rest we depended on their lip reading which some editors were amazingly good at. We actually carried a plug in wall clock with us. That's about as far back as I can remember and tha's probably more than anyone cares to read.

>Brian "slowing syncing" Heller

>Believe it or not, I was going to suggest this option. But my one concern was that, even though the time code itself would remain contiguous, there might be a physical gap on the tape itself from starting and stopping that could possibly cause a momentary dropout of the time code (sort of a getting up to speed situation). But since this suggestion comes so highly recommended, I will assume that DATs can sit right on the next record-able frame (for lack of a better way of expressing it) with no spin up time. I know you can punch-in precisely on a pre-stripped tape, but had my doubts in a run-record situation. I will also assume that if the sound guy/gal listens back to a take, the DAT can be directed right back to the next record-able frame. Would one of the more sound savvy among us confirm that this is a standard feature of DATs? Brent Reynolds I know that this may sound a little off of the subject of cinematography, but I would like to start using this method all of the time to help streamline the indies/shorts that I work on.

>As I mentioned, we have encountered run record DATs from time to time, and have had no problems of any kind in telecine. In fact, we prefer them because there is never a short preroll problem. The code is infact continuous and unbroken. while there are a few sound mixers that do it that way, the majority use the free run mode, which has many more potential pitfalls than run record. Of course, if the slate is in free run, and the DAT is in run record, everything goes out the window, and we have to sync by hand on the clap.

Ed Colman

SuperDailies Cinematograper Supervised Video Dailies

>one more note Can't restrain myself on this one, sorry to jump in so late. We have a wonderful, powerful, reliable, efficient, effective, elegant solution to this documentary slating problem. I've been using it for years. It's simple, easy to use, and the latest telecine software seems to make it flow like water (or fine wine if you prefer). Of course, this is the time-tested, venerable old Aaton time-code-on film system. We just used it again last week, tansferred 5 hours of sync super16 dailies in EIGHT hours of telecine time! And the colorist could have just about left the room, the system was so flawless. (What budget-conscious producer wouldnt be happy about that?) There were two rolls of inserts, cutaways, establishing, etc., which I shot without ever seeing a slate, many stops and starts. The Aaton code sunk up every single take so smoothly and perfectly that it felt like we were watching video dailies with sound on the same medium as the image. There was virtually no offset drift, over 4 days of production. And my camera is a relatively old XTR, with many miles of neg under its belt. The time code DAT recorder simply runs a lot (in free-run mode, of course) and has lots of excess audio, long heads, etc. Then the DAT player in telecine zips forward while the film transport (Ursa or whatever) continues to roll without stopping. If the cameraman has a little bit of head before crucial dialogue (3 to 4 seconds, depending on how much extra audio there is) then the telecine never stops. And if that little bit is needed, then the operator simply stops for a moment, the machines align, and voila, all the sound is laid down anyway! Our last session was at Complete Post in Hollywood, with the new Aaton software, and we were all astonished (well, OK, I've been a pretty religious aaton booster for a long time) at how perfectly the system worked. And by the way, there's no need to use an Origin C, just plug in a jamming cable after the DAT has been set with code. I realize that not everyone is lucky enough to own a time-code aaton, but they are certainly available for rent almost anywhere. There, I've made my plug, sorry it was so late in this thread.

>Peter Pilafian

> "Dream Big and Dare To Fail" --Norman Vaughn