A slate is an easy thing to forget. It's one of the notorious complaints that show up about new filmmakers—they forgot to slate! It's also something you feel abjectly silly buying. I already have one, you think, as you go about shopping for a slate.
Typically the slate arrives to set with the sound team, but it's not uncommon for the ACs to keep one in their kit as well, and honestly, as production teams get smaller, and the volume of tiny crew shoots explodes, more of us find ourselves needing a slate.
This is where Filmsticks comes in. Filmsticks designs and manufactures clapperboard sticks, slates, and accessories for the film industry. Created by established Clapper Loaders, Filmsticks uses resin over wood to create a lighter and more streamlined product over wooden counterparts. But are they good?
Slates by Filmsticks
Since the slate is so simple, it doesn't seem like an area ripe for innovation. There are of course timecode slates, which cost more than a thousand dollars typically, but those are really for film jobs trying to shoehorn timecode onto an older tech. On a video or digital cinema job, it's so easy to get timecode into most cameras these days that the timecode slate isn't as necessary as it once was.
Yes, some small video cameras don't take timecode, but the same jobs that run those cameras often can't afford a timecode slate either. Leaving us with simple old plastic slates as still being quite common.
Most of those common plastic slates are terrible. The biggest complaint, of course, is that the top clapper pops too easily off the bottom writing surface. Beyond that, they almost always have screws that fall apart too easily, leaving you without a top clapper. Additionally, the writing surface is often made of lower-quality materials and cracks too easily.
Filmsticks has decided, however, to innovate in the slate space. They are a company out of the UK just working on their North American distribution who sent me their slates to take a look at, and they are wildly impressive for the price point. They've already become popular on some of the largest shoots in the UK market, and filmmakers should be excited they are expanding in the US.
It's All in the Details
The first detail to notice is that the screws holding the clapper together use locking nuts. If you have any experience with bike mechanics you are likely familiar with these little wonders. They have a nylon ring inserted that "locks" the nut in place when you are done tightening in so it won't vibrate loose. They are a very affordable upgrade, but something many (most) slates at this price point skimp on. Filmsticks has them by default.
One interesting decision is that the cases are designed to just cover the slate, but not the sticks. The clapper sticks are up there, all alone, unprotected in your bag. This is great space-saving since a case that also covers the clapper top tends to get pretty big, and shows a tremendous amount of faith in the magnet to keep the sticks together in your pack.
In our experience, the magnet is very secure and this is going to work fine if you have a dedicated secure place to store your sticks in your kit. A side pocket on a bag, for instance, or the laptop sleeve. We'd be reluctant to just chuck the slate willy nilly into a bag with the sticks unprotected like that, but that's probably not something you should be doing anyway.In addition to the high-quality acrylic writing surface, the clappers at the top are made of resin instead of wood. This is why Filmsticks can market the slates as being "weatherproof."
If you've ever let your old slate get wet (as happens not just on rain and snow shoots but sometimes with food work), you know how quickly a wooden slate can deform itself and become warped so fast they become almost unusable. That isn't going to happen with the weatherproof slate. The acrylic surface will obviously be fine, but so will the resin clapper sticks, and that's a massive improvement.
Thinking Outside the Box
The oddest decision on the Filmsticks is the decision to ship with the clapper and the acrylic slate packaged separately, and mounting instructions on how to mount them properly. They are clear, simple instructions, and it's easy to do, and it allows for creating a very secure connection using layers of electrical tape, but it's an interesting choice nonetheless.
Filmmakers are used to having to assemble kits, so that isn't that strange. Filmsticks recommends two layers of electrical tape to make a firm grip, but I used three, and even then I supported that with a 1" gaff tape L-bracket at the back of the slate holding the top on as well.
It's practically standard on slates and not something I have an issue with seeing on the back of the slate as extra final security. Probably unnecessary with the triple electrical, but it's there nonetheless. The reason it's odd is that it means they are sending out a full roll of electrical tape with every slate. Not the most wasteful thing in the world from the end-user's viewpoint (it's electrical tape, we'll eventually put it to use), but a major extra cost from the manufacturer's standpoint.
You could definitely see a more cost-focused manufacturer finding a way to cut that out and pre-glue the sticks to the slate. Filmsticks has chosen to go this way, which frankly gives a very secure attachment, even if it means they are spending more buying all those rolls of tape in bulk.Filmsticks are on a run of rolling out well-thought-out accessories for filmmakers building on their success in sticks. It's too much to list it all here (though you can see everything available at B&H), but there are two items just released that we thought deserved special attention for showing clear evidence these are designed by working filmmakers.
First off, color-coded hex keys. It seems like such a small thing, but when working fast on set, being able to immediately get the 4mm because you remember that it's the yellow one without having to look at tiny print in a dim set is a real time-saver. This is the kind of incremental improvement on something that, once you see it, makes you wish all Allen key sets had already implemented it.
The other is a refillable dry erase marker. Film sets are often wasteful places, and one of many, many places that we waste a lot is the dry erase markers we eat through like breakfast cereal. A refillable marker, designed for film set use, is a major benefit.
They also have something to let us attach markers to the back of slates, which again is something that we can't believe folks haven't figured out ages ago, but we're glad someone is taking this space seriously and making the small accessories that make life better on set. Tape one of those shammy erasers to the back, and you are off to the races.
The medium size is what you'll see most commonly on film sets, with the "medium" naming making us think we might be expecting even larger slates (for wide shots and drone work) in the future.