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Screen Capture – One Component in Hard-Hitting Internet How-Tos

Photo credit: Pedro Nogueira

Since my last post on the Camtasia Screen Capture and Edting Suite available from Techsmith I have received several questions on the best way to go about putting together aesthetically pleasing, informative, effective and most importantly, professional grade how-to video for online distribution. The following exposition can apply to almost any kind of how-to video, regardless of whether the subject will require a screen capture utility at all.

My advice to anyone wanting to provide their client with a high quality how-to video is first, go to YouTube , Vimeo or any other favorite video sharing site and search for how-to videos. You will be greeted with mountains of how-tos from serious to satirical ranging in quality from largely home-made shaky cam pointing at a monitor to a few genuinely professional grade videos. I have always proceeded from the standpoint that if a client wanted a video that looked as though it was shot with a cell phone camera pointing at a computer screen and narrated on the fly, they’d do it themselves. Clients, however, pay us to provide them with professional grade products and while I cannot claim to be able to trump Michael Bay in terms of production quality, I can certainly find a middle ground between Hollywood and the kid next door recording his best game of Guitar Hero.

By watching several common how-to videos you may notice a few glaring points where quality can be improved. Here’s a sampling:

  • Impromptu narration – lots of ums and uhs, stumbles, corrections, non-verbal utterances and background noise
  • Tacky title work that is overly ornate or is the obvious product of a template-driven do-it-yourself software suite
  • Live shots that are shaky, tilted, poorly lit and awkwardly edited
  • Tacky edits between shots

Those are just a few things that draw a defined line in the sand between the extreme novice producer and everyone else. Notice I didn’t say between the pros and everyone else, it’s probably unrealistic to set one’s goal to put together an Oscar nominee how-to video, and fortunately, to break away from the stigma surrounding the multitudes of how-tos online, you don’t have to. You can produce work that is an order of magnitude better than that which we see on a daily basis pop up on YouTube without breaking the bank and without having a liberal arts degree.

My process doesn’t require many thousands of dollars worth of equipment and software, but it does require at least some paid software. I have not explored the free and cheap-as-free solutions for video editing. I primarily use Adobe Premiere Pro CS4 and After Effects CS4 for video work, for audio I use Adobe Soundbooth CS4 and for static images I use Adobe Photoshop CS4. There is one piece of free software that I do use on a daily basis and that is Audacity, for simple audio edits. Audacity (and the Lame Encoder) are necessary tools, in my opinion, for anyone doing audio or video work. There may be free alternatives to the Adobe software that I list, however, be wary of products that tend to take a more template-based approach to production and who tout themselves as having, say, a vast library of cheeseball edits and effects – these aren’t worth the space they take up on your hard drive and shouldn’t find their way into a production for a client unless he or she specifically asks for it (and at that point, you can’t do much but comply).

From this point I would like to provide a somewhat birds-eye view of my process with a bit of explanation along with each step to illustrate why I proceed the way I do. This isn’t going to be a step-by-step tutorial of how to make a video, there will be plenty of things that must be different thanks to individual needs of the job at hand.

First, I usually try to define a few things about the job, will this be a one-off video or part of a series (good to know so we can take steps to replicate our work later on to provide a consistent feel across the board). It’s not a bad idea to treat productions that are supposed to be one of a kind like those that will span multiple videos – you never know that the customer won’t be instantly enamored with your style, up his or her retainer hours and order a whole string of videos produced (hey, we can hope, right?). So, in this case, make an effort to keep any intermediate work and keep it organized for future use. Let’s say, you need to use Photoshop to generate some static title cards or backgrounds. It’s going to be a composite image consisting of several layers, type, masks, adjustments, etc. You may be tempted to flatten the final product and save it as a .tiff file for use in your video, discarding the layered original. This is an example of exactly what not to do, and it applies to many other places where you may be working, be it in audio, video or composition. Keep your source and intermediate materials.

Other key things to know about the job are the destination format. This was more important before than perhaps it is today since most modern PCs can generally handle working with full HD video without taking too much of a performance hit, and storage is cheap. However, if you’re rocking a laptop that’s a few years old and you’re trying to do something in 1080p, that you know will never be displayed anywhere outside of a YouTube embedded video at 320x240px, then you may find that in the interest of saving time and meeting deadlines, you may wish to work at a resolution closer to your target. IF, however, you can spare the cock cycles, by all means, it is much preferred to work in higher resolutions and scale down as needed. For videos that are screen recording heavy, I normally choose a display resolution that is just enough to show what I must show, and not much bigger, and then I work at that resolution. This will keep text crisp and readable and minimize distracting elements in the frame. This is the only exception to working in full HD that I make, however.

Will there be narration in the job? In most cases, probably so. If the client provides narration you can only advise him or her as to the best practices for recording, such as choosing a quiet place without a lot of echo (bathrooms are typically bad despite what you think about your shower’s acoustics). Bedrooms, on the other hand, are almost a perfect substitute for a recording studio when you are working from home thanks to a large sound-deadening mass usually taking up a pretty decent portion of it’s volume (the bed). Before recording, it is always a good idea to type up a script to work from. Try, however, to speak naturally when recording and not as though you are reading from a book as some people tend do to. If index cards work better, then index card away. The point being, to have a reference that will allow you to proceed efficiently though the task you are demonstrating in a linear fashion without stumbling or searching for words.

On a typical project requiring heavy screen recording, such as a software demonstration, I normally write the script while going through the processes that I will show in the how-to. Just remember to reset everything back to their original states before recording the video.

When recording the audio, proceed from your script, in your good recording environment room, turn off your phone, put the kids and the pets in a different room and calmly proceed through the recording. It doesn’t hurt to do a few sentences and then play back your recording so you can tell if it sounds ok. I use a laptop with an externally connected microphone to do my recording running Audacity. If you stumble, it OK, do not panic, don’t stop and restart from the beginning and don’t get discouraged. Just pause, back up to a previous sentence or paragraph break and resume. You will be able to edit this out later, so there is nothing lost when you make a mistake. I would suggest, also, that you should tend toward pausing more than you ordinarily would when speaking. If you must shorten your gaps later on, you can, but if you run sentences and phrases together where a title card or scene cut are desired, it can be more difficult to cleanly edit the audio to make room for these post-production bits and pieces.

Once you have an audio recording created you should save it before starting the edit process so you won’t risk losing your recording. You may save as an uncompressed .wav file, or if you desire, use the Lame encoder to save a .mp3, however, I recommend setting the bitrate to 320kbps for better quality.

Clean audio editing is one of the bigger things that will set your project apart from the kids in the basement across the street. Using audacity, simply play through your audio, select and delete things that need to be cut. Here’s a tip for those who are really paying attention that will really help as well – I use the amplify function to “turn down” any instances where my inhalation is distracting through the recording. With higher end microphones this may not be as much of an issue, but to me, I find myself distracted by the noise that my throat makes as my lungs fill with air at times and nobody needs to leave the presentation wondering if you are asthmatic. That being out in the open now, I fully expect people to approach me and say that they were distracted by my seemingly super-human ability to speak for five minutes on a single breath (perhaps there’s no satisfying some).

After editing, and saving the edited-down version of the audio as a separate file (who knows, you may find later that you accidentally cut a section that you need, it happened to me once and I had my original file) I begin the screen recording or any other recording that I need to do where I am not specifically on camera. Using Camtasia, or any other screen recorder software (I like screencast-o-matic) begin recording with the audio turned off. We won’t need the audio track, since we have one that’s better anyway already). Allow your own narration to guide your actions. Take care to try to keep the delay between the narration and when you perform the step consistent. You can cut and scrub audio and video independently later, but I have managed to get by with a minimum of that just by being consistent, not over-running the narration just because I know what to do next, etc.

After recording and exporting the video, you’re ready to edit it. You can edit and composite within Cantasia studio, otherwise, I use Adobe Premiere Pro to make my cuts and other video edits. Generally I cut the leader off the video, leaving at least half a second at each end in case it’s needed in the composition step. If I do any live recording, and I haven’t created separate files already I may split video where traveling between scenes (imagine a how-to change your car’s oil video where you record the entire time from opening the hood and removing the fill cap to getting under the car, you may want to break the top-side recording from the bottom-side and eliminate the awkwardness in between) I cut these videos into scenes as well and export them out at full resolution uncompressed video.

We’re almost finished, we are now ready to compose the video. Adobe After Effects is my composition software of choice. The difference between an editor and a composition program is that you generally make cuts in an editor and produce the final product in a composition program. You CAN use Adobe Premiere for this step, but I have found After Effects to be more flexible and offer features that you don’t see in Premiere. I would go easy on the effects at this stage. I generally use only utilitarian effects, such as a degraining filter for live video to help clean up the CCD noise introduced when lighting conditions are just shy of optimal while recording video with less expensive gear. That’s about it.  Don’t set your title cards or lower thirds on fire, don’t make them spin in from opposite corners of the screen trailing glitter and smelling of unicorns (ok, not sure how you’d do that, but if you could, DON’T). Keep It Simple Stupid is the order of the day when creating high quality, professional grade work. I generally stick to simple crossfades between scenes and do a fade in from black, and out to black at each end. I wouldn’t do a mozaic edit if my life depended on it and I wouldn’t do a clock-wipe unless the client wanted a how-to video that was pertaining to, or a satire of Star Wars, since that is about the only professionally created mainstream accepted production in which such effects have ever been used. I use easy to read fonts in any title work and I use strokes and shadows sparingly when here.

In After Effects you should import all your scenes and audio clips, and any static graphics you may want and perhaps create a black or white solid shape to set up as the canvas so things have something with which to fade against when you are doing our edits. Place your pieces on the composition timeline and drag them around, create tweens and adjust opacity to perform any fades and work from the start to finish, saving your project file frequently.

The final steps are to export your video to a client ready format. It can be full rez HD if they are taking over from here, YouTube sized if you’re going straight to that medium, whichever way you need, take care to properly setup the output and then proceed with the export. This step will take some time, especially if you have had to apply the degraining filter or any other adjustment filters to the video as these frames take a lot of time to render. When that has finished watch the output through closely. Look and listen for any problems and make the necessary corrections in After Effects, Premiere or Soundbooth, or your chosen equivalents. Wash, rinse and repeat until you have a product that you can put your name on and then send it off to the client!

That is my process and I know it can be improved upon. If I had written this post before encountering bad cell phone camera video (that was the ONLY video in existence and there was NO possibility to re-film with better equipment), I wouldn’t have known about degraining and image adjustment filters in After Effects. I have no formal training in this field and know only what my experience has taught. This, again, wasn’t intended to be a step-by-step walkthrough for creating a how-to that you could start with nothing and have a pretty decent video at the end of 20 minutes of reading, this is merely a starting point with some observations that I’ve made along the way. Hopefully, with this guide in mind anyone can go forward and form their own process for creating a stunning, professional how-to video that will be beneficial and pleasing to your client.

Posted on June 13th, 2011 by Team CVA

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