Disney Cartoon #45: "The Muppet Movie. Scene 1A. Take One!" (June 22, 1979) - published November 12, 2011
by Albert Gutierrez
If you've been following From Screen to Theme's "Where in the World," you'll notice some mischievous Muppet Mayhem courtesy of Animal. Inspired by Animal's wacky irrelevance changing seemingly-normal pictures, we'll be bringing some of that irrelevance here to Saturday Matinee. Each Saturday in November we'll try to find wacky irrelevance in Disney shorts or movies.
This week's irrelevance is the clapper board.
"The clapper board?" you ask.
Who's that hiding behind the board? Sean Marshall from "Pete's Dragon" of course!
The clapper board goes by many names. The slate, the clapper, and marker are several examples. But as far as I know, there are no clapper board fan clubs. Hollywood does not have a Clapper Board Hall of Fame. I haven't come across any "A History of the Clapper Board" books. Modern clapper boards today don't even use chalk writing anymore, favoring a wipeboard and permanent marker with an electronic counter running on top. Having such a precise counter slightly negates the audible and iconic "clap!" sound - which is necessary for synching audio and video in the editing room - but most still use it out of tradition. Plus, sometimes human instinct is simply more reliable than technology, no matter how advanced we get.
So why is the clapper board irrelevant here at Saturday Matinee? It's not really. In another wild and crazy Muppety way, we're going to take something seemingly irrelevant and giving it relevance. Most would not expect a clapper board to be used in animation. After all, an animator would not need to set up his pencil and paper the same way as one would in a live-action production. In cartoons, you won't be spending time physically putting up a set, making sure all the lights are in place, wiring everyone for sound, and loading the film camera. Thus, there is no need for someone to hold a clapper board before a camera and announcing before every shot recorded, "The Greatest Movie Ever Made, Scene 101A, Take 42!". What use is there to do all that, then pull the camera away to record someone drawing thousands of frames of animation?
However, the board still maintains an importance. In the early days of feature animation, Disney shot a lot of camera tests, so they could record how the film captured-and-projected cels. They experimented in how color was captured, and the type of light to use when capturing. Even though these color tests were silent, it was always necessary to document what test was being done. Thus, the slate would precede each test. The above captures show just how the clapper board (clapper-less) was used. Even though the footage will be silent and no "clap" is necessary, we still get the slate with pertinent information, followed by the camera test: unfiltered capture with white light, and a filtered "corning" capture that emulates "day for night" shots.
Also, most people don't realize just how important the clapper board really is. I'm not talking about the practical and technical uses, but the sentimental ones. The clapper board has become so embedded within the general public's views of filmmaking culture. Even though some may argue that there is some degree of insignificance, many still enjoy seeing that board first-thing when the first reel of film is unspooled and loaded into the projector. We enjoy hearing someone recite what we can all read plain as day. Then, there is the iconic "clap!", the indication that something amazing will happen. The board is pulled away, the actors compose themselves, the crew silence in wait for that moment. A scene truly begins, and movie magic is made.
The animators of A Bug's Life, for example, included two hilarious sets of outtakes when the film was released to theatres. It allowed us to view the production of the film almost as if it were real-life. Ants and grasshoppers and circus bugs were real living beings, performing for a camera. And true to form, we saw clapper boards every so often. Making this Pixarverse even more believable was the cameo by Woody as an assistant director, humorously holding his clapper board upside down.
Of course, we can't ignore one of the most iconic uses of the clapper board. In The Muppet Movie, Kermit and the gang prepare to shoot their movie on a Hollywood soundstage. Scooter serves as the assistant director and steps in front of the camera, operated by Rowlf. He announces, "The Muppet Movie. Scene 1A. Take One!" And in a very Scooter moment, he slams the clapper down on his hand. It's been misplaced not to the side, but right inside the clapper itself. This is a mistake that most of us often hope to see in clapper board shots. Not necessarily to see someone have a slight pain when making movies, but because we often hope for that look of surprise (and yes, maybe some pain), when the person realizes their fingers are caught. The Muppets masterfully do this in The Muppet Movie, and also helps show what a rather dim guy Scooter can be at times. He's got a look of shock and even winces slightly. It's amazing.
The clapper board is quite important in the grand scheme of things. Definitely not irrelevant at all, whether it be in a live-action movie, a cartoon, or in Scooter's hands. Perhaps next week I'll find that real bit of irrelevance in Disney, Muppets, and the meaning of life.