Making screencasts (also known as"video tutorials") is already easy, and becomes easier with better tools and broadband proliferation. However, no tech is complete without a human who dives in, does experiments, and discerns best practices from the results.
I've made over 200 video tutorials, mostly for the virtual world of Second Life, and I've also done tutorials for stuff like YouTube and Sony Vegas. If a picture's a 1,000 words, then a video is… a LOT more.
Through such experience, these are tips 'n' tricks I'm sure you'll find practical and applicable to your further forays into the video fields:
1. Understand audio engineering
No, you don't need a degree. Yes, you need ears-on experience — there's just no other way around it. The good news is, by the time you're well on your way, your screencasts will sound crisper, louder, and overall better.
In the first place, you don't need an expensive mic. I use a US$30 Plantronics headset and it captures my voice well.
George Lucas was spot on when he reckoned:
"Sound is 50 percent of the moviegoing experience, and I've always believed audiences are moved and excited by what they hear in my movies at least as much as by what they see."
Basic screencast"audio engineering"is a simple matter of running pre-tests and making sure your mic levels aren't too"hot"— that is to say, they aren't digitally clipping. Digital distortion is ugly and unwanted, and many people will think you sound amateurish in the worst way.
One significant step up is immersing yourself into the world of audio plugins. Did you know that there are many times more audio plugins than, say, Photoshop plugins? KVR Audio reveals 1,000s.
While most screencasting tools don't support the likes of VST (Virtual Studio Technology) and AU (Audio Units on the Mac) plugins, quality non-linear editors do. For example, I record my movies with Camtasia Studio, then place the clips into Sony Vegas for audiovisual processing. Vegas is my fave because its heritage is being a multitrack audio recorder, and I'm from an electronic music background.
Even if you don't have big bucks to shell out, you may be able to enhance your audio (not just dialog, but music and sound effects too) in a free editor like Audacity, which supports VST plugins. But the tighter the integration, the better.
There are all manner of audio plugins which can produce just about any effect you can imagine, from utilitarian fine-tuning to wacky warping, but 4 must-know"cores"are:
1. Noise Gate - Cuts off noise when it's below a certain level. Good for eliminating hiss when no one's speaking. Related but more selective is a noise reducer, which takes a"fingerprint"of noise, analyzes it, then does its best to clean up noise from audio signal (e.g., making someone's voice more distinct if they're speaking in a windstorm).
2. Reverb - You probably already know what this is, but just in case: obvious reverb can be found in large spaces like cathedrals, as well as smaller ones with strong acoustic reflections like tiled bathrooms. A light dusting of reverb can help smooth out a voice without it being excessively boomy. A creative use of reverb is to fake a space which is cost-prohibitive to actually record in, like the Grand Canyon.
3. Compressor - Not a"ZIP file compressor", but a dynamic range compressor. Think of a valley and a mountain — there's huge vertical distance between them! If a compressor was applied, it would make the mountain shorter so there's less distance. Applied to audio, a compressor smoothes out the"jumpiness"so the sound is more level. Good compression is often said to be transparent and unnoticeable. If you've ever listened to the radio or watched TV and wondered how they got the levels to be so balanced, you've heard compression in action.
4. Limiter - Often used with a compressor. The difference: a limiter prevents digital clipping. By using a gain control, the overall volume of a recording can be pushed up without exceeding 0 dB (decibels). That means it maximizes loudness! However, use compression and limiting judiciously, or you run the risk of your sounds being too"flat,"as the loudness wars have shown. Also, since a limiter raises the volume, the noise floor becomes louder too — another good reason to use a"combo chain"of effects, ending with the limiter.
Equalization may be a concern — and there are other ways to adjust frequency imbalance like an exciter — but you may find that recording on a good mic from the get-go diminishes your need to adjust this further. Trust your ears!
All the above effects have some free and low-priced plugins, and even lower-cost software like iMovie has audio effects. Spend time downloading demos from KVR Audio. Be brave about experimenting and compare before/after, and your screencasts' sound will really stand out!
2. Indulge in templates
Maybe this should've been #1, but I feel strongly about both: the point's been made. Especially if you're creating a regular series, quick access to"common assets"is fundamental for saving time and trouble:
- Create a folder containing needed common assets for your screencast series. This might be begin & end bumper titles, static graphics that recur, and theme music. The point is to have them all in one place.
- Label everything neatly (no cryptic filenames like"TEST_P243.AVI"). Obvious, but I'm shocked how many people don't do this — and suffer later.
- Make use of your screen recorder and/or video editor's template features. These go under different names like"profile"or"setting,"but the principle is the same: fast access to your preferred options. If your editing software doesn't support choosing templates a la Microsoft Word, at the very least, setup a clean file with the basic layout, stash a locked copy in the common assets folder (to prevent accidentally messing up), and copy it to be modified as needed for each video.
- Iterate and efficiencize. As you gain experience, you may wish to — and almost certainly should — revise your template. For example, I discovered some of my template clips were compressed in a disk-hogging format they didn't need to be, and they were somewhat longer than what was actually being used. I trimmed and re-encoded them with no visual quality loss, and backed up my common assets folder (just in case). Keep pinpointing your problem spots and building on them.
One of the worst surprises is to be retrieving a video project months down the road (maybe you need to update it or include it in a demo reel) and have your video software bark that a file is missing. This is exactly why I make sure to have each project in its own folder, and often, all episodes of a series (if it's not too disk space-consuming) in a folder. Stray files are sad ones.
3. Focus on using eye candy to enhance learning
Sure, swirling vectors and all manner of playful motion graphics dazzle. But they're also a dangerous trap for a couple reasons:
1. They may distract from your actual content. I've watched too many vidcuts where particle explosions blocked user interface elements and a hard rock soundtrack was cranked up too loud, drowning out the narrator's speech (another reason to get into audio engineering). As a result, they were impressive. For about 5 seconds before waves of fatigue. And I didn't benefit at all, opting instead to close the window and move on.
2. They make you look like"everyone else."I mean that colloquially, so let's use a parallel example: the many Web 2.0 sites that look like they were designed by one person. Rounded corners, names with missing vowels, starburst callouts, etc. There's no sin in being influenced by a trend (and adding your own twist) if it helps you approach your goals, but it's foolish to copy just because others are doing it. Learn from design greats like Machine Molle and Nik Ainley, but find your own unique voice.
Let's look at a specific instance of eye candy issues: Clearspace Community's"What's New in 2.5"trailer is basically beautiful and well-presented. But, it has too much distraction in the way of superfluous diagonal tilts in a pseudo-3D perspective. I'd argue there are also too many zooms: Ken Burns Effect is one thing, but excess rapid transitions induces headaches. Past the initial hump o' novelty, they also damage readability, get tiring, and feel cheap. At least the actual"meat"of this video, the tight narration, is healthy.
So if you use eye candy, take stock of what it's actually contributing. I like Camtasia's"spotlight"around the cursor because it clarifies your actions. I also like zooming in to key areas of focus. And Mac users have the pleasure of OmniDazzle.
Don't feel bad if you've gone overboard with eye candy: like everyone's first time with Photoshop lens flares, you'll overuse it, then rein in the harness as you continue. The most important thing is to learn by doing.
And others can help inspire you…
4. Learn from the best screencasts in the world
This is fun, because"the best"will be subjective. Some of the most popular screencasts on YouTube have 100,000s of views, but with experience, you'll watch and go,"Hey, they're missing X"or"They could do Y better."And that's where your perception of what's superlative will shift, and you'll get better.
(You'll also want to watch crappy screencasts to understand what makes them not work. Including the first ones you make. I don't cringe at my initial attempts because they're stepping stones that led me to the present.)
Without a doubt, some of the most endearing screencasts are earnest human affairs: Mike Beltzner's raw"Overview of Firefox 3"is a standout. Sure, he could've used noise reduction, but it serves its purpose: communicating the product's benefits in a clear, occasionally humorous way.
Some of my faves:
Apple's Quick Tip of the Week - It's Apple, what do you expect? Clear branding (important to promote yourself), concise presentation, and astute use of zooms and pans.
Russell Brown - The godfather of Photoshop. He wears wild costumes on zany sets in some of his Adobe TV shows, but for the most part, his voice alone is reason enough to listen.
Video CoPilot - Great inspiration of what you can do by contrasting an ordinary presentation style with the subject matter: special effects. Also note how Andrew Kramer's tutorials are used to promote and create more value for his software products.
ScreenCastsOnline - Don McAllister's built up a thriving community by doing Mac screencasting for a living. His jovial English accent and polished style are a treat to learn from.
I'll have future faves I've yet to discover, so let me know what yours are!
5. Practice narrating and love your voice
Not everyone has a golden throat like the late Don LaFontaine. But you totally don't have to — you'll stand out more if you can literally speak for yourself. And you'll learn a lot watching others' screencasts. Also remember audio techniques can boost your presence. (All these steps connect!)
Some screencasters are too shy, and merely put on-screen text subtitles or use text-to-speech. That limits your greatness, because it's never a substitute for sharing your vox humana.
Still shy? Think about all the comedians with quirky presences (Sarah Silverman, Janeane Garofalo, Gilbert Gottfried) who've succeeded in a big way. They put their voices out there, and while strange at first, they've become a familiar comfort. Same thing with screencasting — give people a chance to get used to you, then become your devoted fans.
Public speaking helps directly too. When I was a kid, I could be timid about talking. You know what made me grow? Sheer, dogged persistence and repetition — not of the mindless kind, but practicing over and over. I'm now widely-acclaimed for my rich bassy tone, awkward pronunciation of some words, and propensity to say"Friendly greetings!"
Oh yeah, while you're at it, take advantage of a catchphrase.
6. Be codec-smart, context-aware
It pays to record your screencasts in as high-fidelity as possible, but this doesn't necessarily mean a lossless (no loss of quality, as the name implies) codec. If you're doing a walkthrough of a video game and there's lots of full-motion video and rich palettes with millions of colors, lossless codecs tend to choke (capture low frames per second) and generate huge, unnecessary file sizes. Depending on your broadcast medium — is your video headed for a DVD, YouTube, or both? — extra detail may not be necessary, or even relevant.
Good software helps you handle this, but nonetheless, like NBC sez,"the more you know."I use DivX with Camtasia (installed via the K-Lite Codec Pack) when recording Second Life and games, and switch to TSCC for standard applications with lots of flat areas. I wish it had a 1-keystroke way to toggle between the two, but making those choices means I don't have to fuss with unnecessary re-encoding later.
Also, the codec you record with may be different than the one you publish with. H.264 is processor-intensive and unsuitable for editing, but it's a cross-platform-friendly, high-quality publishing option. If you're planning to upload a video to the Web (more in Step #7), you'll want to ensure your video is clear enough to survive yet another round of encoding, since almost all established video-sharing sites use Flash video.
Wish I could be more specific here, but there are many variations across different softwares, and no such thing as a single right answer. One easy-to-follow guide (I've seen many junk ones which are incomprehensible) to get you started is Vimeo's Compression Help. I've also shared details of my earlier findings. Try different settings, and compare.
Finally, as much as possible, always keep your original project files. It only hurts you to not have them, even if they run into the 100s of gigabytes. Hard drives keep getting cheaper — I saw a 1TB external for US$100 the other day! — so keep checking sites like DealsPlus and dealnews. It's worth the cost to store your creativity.
7. Continually explore delivery mediums
This is actually true for everything: stay on top of what's new.
Instead of being abstractly vague, here's what I mean:
The importance of ongoing tools exploration is especially true when it comes to sharing your work, because the best screencasts include those which substantially benefit many people. It's not just raw numbers, it's about spreading the good word, and some video-sharing sites will help you far more than others. For example, YouTube has the broadest viewer base by far (they get me 95% of my views), so if you want"stumble onto"traffic, they're primo. Alas, their quality doth suck compared to Vimeo. And if you want to upload gaming clips, Vimeo isn't friendly to those — but there exist communities which are.
Speaking of, I get lessons handed to me weekly. I only recently wrote"Which video-sharing site should you use? A quick conclusion"and recommended WeGame for gaming screencasts.
Less than a month later, my wife tried WeGame and was having problems, so I searched and found out about Xfire. Shocked me that I wasn't familiar with it earlier (the site claims it has 11.4+ million registered users), since the free Xfire client records the best gaming footage I've seen yet, and can easily upload it to the Web. It also saves to disk, so you can edit further if you desire. See my detailed review.
Not knowing about this would've hurt me, and I wish I knew about it earlier — but I do now, so I'm encouraging others to give it a spin.
Just about all of these video-sharing sites allow embedded code snippets to be pasted in your blog or other webpage, and should you find it troublesome to collect videos across multiple places, VodPod is a nifty tool to do that. Keep testing new tools and sticking with the ones that work best — but never avert your gaze to what's forthcoming. Odds are high it'll be reported on like we've done before, so subscribe.
On the same thoughtline, I haven't found many dedicated screencaster communities on the Internet, but since we're all in the business and pleasure of sharing knowledge, those I have interacted with have been helpful. That means I'm here to help too, and if you have questions, ask me in the comments! And if you found this guide enlightening, share knowledge from your own experiences.
Torley loves life, wife, and watermelons. He amplifies your awesome with the useful and fun. You can check out more of his screencasts at Torley.com