Filmsticks: The Creation of a Standard in Motion Picture Production
There are aspects in every industry that can be improved and the film industry is no different. Refined processes will always help professionals, but innovative, dependable equipment facilitates this and makes improvements in workflow possible.
One such product that’s present in every professional film shoot is the trusty clapperboard. It’s a tool that’s been around for more than a hundred years and yet has never been standardised. Having used clapperboards for so long in our working environment, Filmsticks started to look at how the numerous incarnations that had been used over the years could be improved. It’s a privilege to innovate and to produce tools that will make a positive difference for professionals beyond our time in the industry. Read on for the full story behind the development of the revolutionary motion picture brand, Filmsticks.
The Clapper Loader
A clapper loader needs to be an excellent time-manager. They have to be physically fit and mentally prepared, applying meticulous attention to detail in order to do their job well and without letting down the entire set. A clapper loader is a rare breed that doesn’t like uniformity and strives to work with different challenges and environments each day and yet enjoys a methodical daily routine within their work.
It’s the job of the loader to take responsibility for all of the camera equipment on set at any given time. They need to make sure that the right kit is on set for what is needed to be shot on that day. For example, if it’s the middle of winter, and the shoot is inside a house, the loader would usually have to arrive at work an hour or so earlier to make sure that the lenses are inside the house, opening them up to make sure they are acclimatised. Then, after breakfast and if on film, they would need to make sure that the camera magazines are loaded for the first scene of any day. It’s one of the few departments that is constantly working, either setting up a shot, filming the shot, or moving cameras and setting up for the next piece.
There’s no sitting around. No chance to breathe. Loading is just one part of the job but, essentially, the crux of the job is to run the floor. The clapper loader or 2nd AC will put down marks for the actors; they will make sure the cameras don’t run out of power or film stock. To achieve this, they will usually record timings all of the rehearsals to make sure that there’s enough stock in the camera. The loader and focus puller are a team and so the loader will also help the focus puller to get all of their distance reference marks as well as putting down marks on the dolly and for the actors, whilst helping to change lenses and filters; making sure they’re all clean, of course. It’s important for the loader to make the focus puller’s life as easy as possible, not least because due to the prospect of future employment. The loader has to keep track of all the equipment throughout any day. It’s a real discipline because there is usually such a vast amount of equipment that needs to be managed, it can bring huge pressure when people are moving quickly on set. Let’s say the director decides to put up a crane for a shot, it will be the loader’s responsibility to ensure that all cabling is in place. A large percentage of the loader’s job is in preparation for the day ahead.
The Making of a Masterpiece
The team behind Filmsticks started off by making chalkboards, which need to be screen printed. We made and sold these to various companies, such as Panavision, and other contacts that we had dealt with through the group’s collective professional work but the wooden sticks were never going to serve as a long term plan in terms of manufacturing. Wooden chalkboards were ‘old tech’ and we found that it was a difficult product do manufacture to a high standard for several reasons. The user would need to be extremely conscientious with regards to ‘chalk dumps’ on the board. If any heavy chalk residue was left on the board, there’s a real danger of getting the chalk dust onto an actor’s costume, which is not something that will win work in the future. There are all kinds of other factors to consider with wooden sticks, such as the environment that you’re shooting in. Different climates will affect the wood, so it’s crucial to consider the hardness of the materials you’re using and, really, this will often differ from shoot to shoot. There’s a real problem traditional, (wooden) clapper sticks experience when you’re working in the business, and that is the rain! Traditional sticks will warp and can become misaligned in wet weather, therefore, it became impractical to attempt to standardise the product with wooden construction.
The whole point of using clapper sticks is that, with sound and imagery being recorded separately, they give a visual sound reference. So, when the sticks are shut, at that exact point, the Editor can find the sound of the clap and the two are married up again. This becomes really hard when the sticks become wet, soft, and even worse, warped, as often you have to position the sticks in front of an artist’s face and if they’re not making a usable sound, you just have to close them even harder, which can startle the actor. Historically, the wooden chalkboards with sticks had been made by a number of people. The problems that came with these were widespread. Due to being made from wood, by the end of any shoot, the paint would often be chipped, the magnets were often missing and they could also be warped and/or water damaged. There was a clear opportunity to do it better, but the biggest problem was to get the weight down to make sure they would be accepted into the industry.
A Change in Direction
It was at this stage that we decided to manufacture our product using ABS Resin. It’s the natural evolution of the product and made perfect sense for the physical reasons already explained. All Filmsticks are now manufactured in ABS Resin, which makes them the perfect ‘all-weather’ clapper sticks for professionals to use in any situation. Once our decision to manufacture in ABS Resin was made, we then performed some tweaks to the design. As people in the film business are very much creatures of habit, we felt it important to produce Filmsticks with a familiar ‘feel’. We had to shave them down to make them the same weight as the wooden versions that were being used and that professional users had become familiar with. 2nd ACs carry so much equipment already, anything that’s heavier than ‘the norm’ just wasn’t going to work, so we made them more narrow and then made up some pre-production samples.
The team then took the samples to numerous film sets across the globe, including a production that was taking place in Iceland, where we had the chance to test our chosen ABS Resin material in extreme temperatures. We left them outside on the camera truck overnight and they were still working just fine!
We then started to tout the sticks around the wider industry, showing them to a broad range of notable professionals. Early Film Sticks samples were then taken to all kinds of extreme scenarios for testing; we took them to a shoot in the desert and another which saw us arrive at a shoot taking place at the underwater stage at Pinewood. We said to the cameraman, “Look, we’re making these great new waterproof clapper sticks”. He then grabbed them and, without a second look, threw them directly into the tank! Our response was, “That’s fine… no problem, they are waterproof. Go and fetch them.” He then had to free dive down to the bottom of the tank to pick them up.
The result of our research and development was the production of a superior and robust product, that meant users could rely on them day in and day out. Shortly after hearing how sturdy our samples had proved during testing, people started talking about our all-weather ‘Filmsticks’ and the phone started to ring asking if we had any, ‘waterproof sticks’ available. This early testing and industry approval has proved to be the making of the Filmsticks brand. You only get one shot, when bringing a brand to market, and especially when you’re attempting to standardise a professional process. Now, Filmsticks have been used on every production from James Bond to Downton Abbey, and they’ve been used in all weathers and conditions from sub-zero temperatures to extreme heat in the Sahara Desert. They work and you can rely on them.
A day in the life
Filmsticks need to be tough as they are products that are used in the hand, seeing a lot of wear and tear. As any professional user will know, their clapperboard needs to be on-hand and so they are generally carried by the user by hooking into the back of a belt. This may seem to be an odd place to carry the Film Stick but, as an example, a user might need to put a board on, then run to a dolly to stop cables from running underneath the wheels, meaning they need both hands free. If the Film Stick is put on the floor, the chances are that someone will step on it. Furthermore, one of the main issues with regular clapperboards, and due to their heavy usage, which can see the all-important white parts separate from the item. This can cause additional headaches for a set and means the 2nd AC needs to keep it close to hand at all times. This is also something that’s been overcome during the R&D stages of Film Sticks and we can absolutely assure users that these products will prove to be the toughest, most reliable on the market.
One Filmstick – Multiple uses
One of the best things about Filmsticks is that you can write on their white elements with a non-permanent pen. This means that when there’s a need for an insert shot; a thumb on a phone, for example, the user can just write what the slate is and take action on the stick, which eliminates the need for a small insert board. Traditionally, there’s been a need for the use of an acrylic slate that’s much smaller than a regular clapperboard. It looks like a clapperboard but is tiny by comparison and used for insert shots.
With Filmsticks, there’s no need to switch, particularly if there’s no sync-sound required, as the user can simply write on the white sticks with non-permanent or focus-pulling pen and place into shot.
There are tablet-based tools in the market, which will allow the user to type insert information onto them, but our research has found that they are often avoided due to the scale of the item being inserted. They’re just too big. The job of a clapper loader can be compared to that of a juggler with 13 different balls in the air with none being allowed to drop! Filmsticks solve this issue and avoid the need for multiple tools on set. Who needs a clapperboard in the digital age anyway?
A common misconception since the advent of timecode is that there’s no longer a need for the clapperboard. Camera brands, such as ARRI, even developed a native timecode version of a clapperboard, but this proved to take too long to program and so never really took off. The clapperboard serves multiple purposes; not least, the physical ‘clunk’ of the sticks tells everyone to be quiet as the crew are about to go for a take. Instances, where the clapperboard has been omitted, has often led to a real lack of discipline and usually sees the clapperboard being swiftly reinstated. Only nowadays, that replacement is likely to be a Filmstick!
Article by Louise Ben-Nathan – https://www.imdb.com/name/nm1224535/