13 Comments

Summary:

A few readers have emailed me commenting on the clarity of our screencasts and asking about the software that I use, so I thought I’d outline my setup and provide some hints and tips for producing clear and easy-to-understand screencasts.

A few readers have emailed me commenting on the clarity of our screencasts and asking about the software that I use, so I thought I’d outline my setup and provide some hints and tips for producing easy-to-understand screencasts.

Equipment

  • 13-inch MacBook Pro
  • External monitor

A microphone or headset is a must if your environment is noisy. I’d love to get a nice mic, like the sE2200T, but I can’t justify the expense for occasional screencasting. I find that the MacBook’s built-in mic is generally good enough for screencasts, as long as there’s no background noise.

Software

  • Camtasia for Mac (Camtasia’s built-in editing capabilities mean that I don’t need a separate editing program)
  • Ooyala Backlot (for uploading to, and managing videos on, Ooyala, our video host. Please see disclosure at bottom.)

In the past I’ve used Jing Pro and iMovie, which also gives pretty good results, although the combo doesn’t have the functionality that Camtasia provides. For Windows screencasts, I use Jing Pro on my XP laptop and then edit the movies in iMovie on my Mac.

Hints ‘n’ Tips

I prepare for each screencast by making sure I know exactly what it is I want to cover beforehand. I don’t write out a full script — I find the screencast ends up being too stilted, plus it’s hard to keep your place while interacting with the app — but rather a list of features to cover and important points to make. I just write them out in big block letters on a notepad next to my computer so that it’s easy to glance over and see what I need to do next.

I generally record a bunch of takes until I get one I’m happy with; sometimes it might take 10 or so false starts before I get one that’s satisfactory. While Camtasia has decent editing functionality, I find that it’s best to try and record the screencast in one take as it makes them seem more natural and flow better. I try to keep my screencasts  — especially those that are just quick tours of a web app — to around five minutes or less to avoid boring the viewer, so recording in one take usually isn’t that hard. If I were to record a longer screencast I’d probably have to break it up into sections, record them separately and edit them together.

Good sound quality is critical in order for viewers to be able to understand what you’re saying. Fortunately, my office has reasonable acoustics and is at the back of my house so it’s generally pretty quiet. However, I often find that just as I’m about to get to the end of a good take, a police car with sirens blazing will drive past, a helicopter will fly overhead or the phone will ring. In those situations, there’s not much I can do apart from redoing the take. I’ve tried re-recording just the section affected by the noise, but often the transition between the two takes is too great and it ends up being distracting. I also try to keep my voice enthusiastic and upbeat — it’s easy to sound tired after the first few takes, and you can bet that if you sound bored, your viewer is going to be bored, too! If I find on playback that my voice sounds monotonous, I’ll redo the take.

It’s virtually impossible for me to get a take that’s flawless; I always make little mistakes. But the viewer isn’t expecting perfection, and will probably be more forgiving of your mistakes than you are — they might not even notice them. (Note: This is not the case if you’re making a demo video to be used on a product site. In that instance, I’d keep redoing it until I’d eliminated every “um” and “ahh”).

In editing, it’s tempting to use the fancy transitions that Camtasia and other programs provide, but I often find them more distracting than useful. I also steer clear of highlighting effects (like the effect that Camtasia provides to zoom in on an area of interest on the screen) for the same reason, unless it’s absolutely necessary. I mainly just make sure that the sound is OK, add bumpers and titles as necessary and edit out any distracting pauses.

The final piece of the puzzle is hosting. It’s important to use a video host with a transcoder that won’t compress the video too much so that when viewers play it back they can still clearly see what’s going on. We currently use Ooyala, which has great quality, although previously we also used Vimeo, which I was also very happy with. I’ve tried YouTube in the past but I found that its quality wasn’t great for screencasts; that may not be the case now as it allows for HD video.

Disclosure: Ooyala has a commercial video hosting relationship with the GigaOM Network.

Related GigaOM Pro content (sub. req.): Enabling the Web Work Revolution

Photo courtesy stock.xchng user kpeterson

By Simon Mackie

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  1. As someone who makes a living creating screencast-based videos, Camtasia for the Mac is good and up to the task, but not as good as Telestream’s Screenflow. To us, what matters most is the output that each program produces. So take your favorite screenshot or screen sequence, zoom in to 171 percent in Camtasia or Screenflow and then export it (720p or better, lossless Quicktime). Look at the font rendering both produce. To us, Screenflow produces the better results. And feature-wise, Screenflow does pretty much everything we need it to do.

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    1. I’m pretty happy with Camtasia, but given the support for Screenflow here (it’s also what theAppleBlog uses for its screencasts, I believe) I may just have to check it out a little more thoroughly.

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  2. Forgot to add the following: Blue Microphone’s Snowball is a fantastic USB podcast microphone for under $100. We used it in some productions while being on the road and it’s provided outstanding results for us given its price…

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    1. I will check out that mic, thanks Veit!

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  3. +1 to Screenflow. Really love it. I believe the main challenge of screencasts, at least in my case where you just can’t resize the window to be small enough, is panning and zooming. Thus, a software that provides editing is a must.

    As for hosting, I use Amazon S3 + CloudFront and stream the video to a Flash player (I paid for JWPlayer, but there are other alternatives). Keep in mind that YouTube is more ubiquitous than standard Flash players and works in the iPhone/iPad as well.

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    1. Good point on YouTube being available on the iPhone/iPad (although I would dread to imagine how clear a typical screncast is on a iPhone’s screen)

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  4. vectissolutions Tuesday, June 15, 2010

    Back in the day I used to work for a firm that dealt with voice processing for telephone banking. The power of their bespoke expensive software….. now you can use the free audacity! Which I use to clean up a bit of noise occasionally for my audio.

    Great post and also enjoying the high quality blog comments you’ve received with useful info….well until I posted! lol

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  5. Hi Simon, thanks for sharing your tips! Would love to hear any suggestions you might have for how we can make Camtasia for Mac work even harder for you.

    Also wanted to share a handy resource with your readers. We polled experienced screencasters for their advice to newbies and compiled it into a free-to-share PDF: http://bit.ly/screencastadvice

    Hope it’s useful!

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  6. Thanks for sharing your workflow. I’ve tried to record a few screencasts too and I’m always frustrated that I can’t do it in one take. I’m not as eloquent as you so I actually write out large chunks of the script, especially for the important parts. I guess practice makes it easier with time :)

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    1. Practice definitely makes it easier :)

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    2. I doubt anyone can record a 60 second or longer screencast in one take. It’s not uncommon for us that we have 10 or more cuts within 60 seconds of playtime, let alone the number of times we need to make changes to those cuts. In fact, hiding the cuts is one of the most challenging problems for Screenflow, since you cannot move the canvas with your cursor keys. Try to move a canvas with your mouse 1 pixel to the left and 2 up. Good luck! No wonder you see many transitions in screencasts – it’s the easiest way to mask cuts.

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  7. Thanks for sharing your screencasting workflow and tips. Do you know of a good screencasting tool for Linux?

    I tried using “record-my-desktop”, but was not happy with it’s overall quality.

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    1. I’m afraid not. maybe some other readers do, though?

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