Most people will be familiar with the phrase ‘Lights, Camera, Action” and will relate this to film making as being the standard ‘announcement’ before filming starts, designed to make sure everyone is ready. You have the legendary filmmaker D W Griffith to thank for the phrase. Of mythical stature himself, Griffith took film into its own as an art form.
One day, frustrated on set and running out of time, Griffith started barking the orders “Lights!” to re-spot the lights on his actors, “Camera!” to roll the camera, and finally “Action!” to get things moving. Why this became the public’s perception of standard operating moviemaking protocol is anyone’s guess. I imagine it has something to do with the simplicity of the phrase, how it rolls off the tongue, and how it captures the essence the craft with brevity.
However, the reality of a modern film set is often somewhat different. For a start the phrase “Lights, Camera, Action’ doesn’t really make a lot of sense.
Lighting takes quite some time to set up on a film set so the chances are the lights have been on and ready for some time. This will ultimately be determined by the DP (Director of Photography) who is checking the camera picture. Then what about sound? This doesn’t even get a mention and yet we are a long way from silent movies! It’s true the word ‘Action’ is still used and in fact this is usually the only part of the phrase said by the Director.
Having worked on a few film sets, the reality of getting everyone ready takes a lot longer and the majority of the call is done by the 1AD which stands for the First Assistant Director. Basically the 1AD does all the running around on set, he is responsible for making sure everyone is doing what they should be, so the Director can focus on the action when it occurs. At the point where the crew are gearing up for a take, the ‘speech’ (known as the on-set cadence) leading up to Action is often far more detailed and will usually run something like:
1st assistant director (1AD): Roll sound!
Boom Operator/Sound Mixer: Sound speed!
1st A.D.: Roll camera!
1st Assistant Camera (AC): Camera speed.
2nd AC: [Calls out scene designation]. Marker
**Slate gets clapped, 2nd AC scurries away**
Camera Operator: Set.
Right before Action is called the clapperboard (which is put in front of the camera marked up with the current scene and take numbers) is ‘clapped’. There has long been some misunderstanding of why. To fully appreciate the purpose of a clapperboard the main thing to remember is that even in modern day film making the picture and sound are recorded separately. The clapperboard therefore has 2 purposes.
- It contains the scene and take number to be recorded by the camera immediately before the action. Remember the camera is recording a silent movie in effect so until the sound is mixed in later, the visual of the clapper board is the only way of knowing what you are about to record.
- When the clapper board is ‘clapped’ together the sound recordist will get a spike on the audio trace and will record the words scene 4 take 3 or whatever it might be.
As a result of all this, a bit later in the production studio you have a series of sound clips and silent films all of which have to be linked together. This is achieved mainly as a result of the clapper board. Sound files are usually saved with a useful reference as the file name. However, the key is the clapper. Once the relevant sound clip is inserted against the same film scene, the producer uses the spike in the audio file (the clapper board) to match up that point in the audio with the point where the clapper board closes on the picture. From there all the dialogue and so forth should then match throughout the rest of the scene.
There is sometimes a bit more too it than that nowadays, but this is still the basic principle involved in recording sound and picture for television and films today.
All of which brings me to the issue of recording songs which include clapping. This often happens when we record in primary schools. Essentially however, for the audio system this is about the same as putting in a clapper board. Suddenly everything ‘spikes’ and you end up with distortion due to all the meters (the lights / graphics which show how much level there is in sound) going to high.
If you’ve ever heard audio which sounds distorted most people assume it is down to their speakers. Sometimes of course it might be, but more often than not, it is because the audio has been badly recorded with the levels set too high. If this happens, the sound will break up. There is one argument that says a single clap is in itself a distorted sound so does it really matter? In fact would you really notice? Maybe not. The more fundamental issue is when there is rhythmic clapping or several claps in a row. At this point, you could end up with a distortion, when compared to the rest of the singing.
This isn’t to say you can’t clap when you record. We usually get around this by just having a few people in the choir / school doing the clapping rather than everyone – and usually the people who are slightly further away from the microphones!
So there you have it. The moral of the story is try to keep clapping during a recording session to a minimum. If you do have to clap, please let us know in advance of the take and we will find a way of doing it which doesn’t suddenly distort the entire recording!
About the author: Jules Addison is a sound engineer for 4 Part Music who has also in the dim and distant past worked on film sets as a boom operator.