Introduction to screencasts

In this post, John Espirian provides an introduction to the process of screencasting and to the tools used for the job.

ScreenFlow

As a freelance technical writer, I sometimes create short videos to help my clients’ audience understand how a service works. These ‘screencasts’ appeal to the growing proportion of users who are turned off by traditional written materials.

To illustrate the point, take a look at my screencast on screencasting:

Definition: screencast

A screencast is a video recording of a computer screen, usually created to instruct or inform an audience about a product or a service.

Screencasts are often accompanied by an audio track (voiceover), but tend not to include video of people talking directly to a camera.

Screencasts can involve recording various types of computer-based activity. For example, users might need help with the following:

  • using a website
  • installing an app
  • changing an operating system setting.

You can see some real screencast examples by viewing my screencast portfolio:

Screencast portfolio

View my screencast portfolio

Planning a screencast

Screencasts aren’t quick to put together. They need planning, and the whole process can take several hours even for a short video. Typically, it takes 1–2 hours to produce 1 minute of a screencast.

When I create a screencast, I follow this plan of action:

  1. Consider the topic – a screencast may not be necessary, and screenshots (still images) and text may do the job just as well.
  2. Write the script – note in detail the steps that will make up the entire screencast, along with an intro and outro.
  3. Gather the image assets – collect any images for the screencast in one place. This can help to define the content of the screencast.
  4. Prepare the screen – close unnecessary windows and programs, move the right icons and documents into view, change the desktop background if necessary, and generally get the ‘stage’ ready.
  5. Record the video – use screencasting software (see below) to capture the relevant screens and processes. Make sure that actions are consistent with the script.
  6. Record the audio – use audio software (see below) to capture the voiceover for the screencast. This should be a narration of the script written in step 2.
  7. Combine and edit – mix the audio and video, make edits, and add transitions and other effects as necessary.
  8. Export and publish – save the output and publish to the appropriate channels.

So, that’s the plan. But how is a screencast created? Let’s find out.

Tools for the job

Creating a screencast requires a mix of software and hardware. Here are the tools I use to get the job done.

Computer

OK, a pretty obvious start. I use an iMac, so my main operating system is Mac OS. But I also run Windows via Parallels, so I can record my screen to look as though I’m using a PC.

Apple devices

If you want to record video from iOS or other mobile operating systems, you’ll need the relevant devices – iPhone, iPad, Android phone, etc. – as well as your host computer.

Screencast software

I use Camtasia by TechSmith to record my screen. The software can also record video from an iPhone or iPad connected via a Lightning cable.

Camtasia by TechSmith

Camtasia by TechSmith

A good alternative to Camtasia is ScreenFlow by Telestream. Both products cost about the same (about £65 each).

Mac users can use the built-in QuickTime app to record their screen. But QuickTime doesn’t offer many tools to edit the result – and file sizes can be huge, making the content difficult to share.

QuickTime menu

QuickTime lets you record your screen

Audio hardware

I record my audio using the Blue Yeti USB microphone. To improve sound quality, I use a ‘pop filter’, which is a mesh barrier that sits between me and the mic.

Blue Yeti USB microphone

Blue Yeti USB microphone

Almost all Macs have a built-in mic, which works well for Skype and FaceTime conversations. But I don’t think the sound quality is good enough for a screencast, which is why I use a separate mic. Some mics are very expensive, but I find that the Blue Yeti, which costs about £100, is perfect for my needs.

Voiceover script software

Some people use ‘teleprompt’ software to display a scrolling script, but I’ve stuck with my trusty text editor, BBEdit. Its free ‘little brother’ app is TextWrangler. I’d recommend TextWrangler to all Mac users, whether or not they’re interested in screencasting.

I number each section of text in my voiceover script, and then record the audio (see Audio software below). Here’s an example of part of a script I wrote for an SfEP screencast:

Voiceover script in BBEdit

Voiceover script in BBEdit

Audio software

Although Camtasia and ScreenFlow can record audio, I prefer to use separate, dedicated software to capture and edit the audio for my screencasts.

I use Audio Hijack by Rogue Amoeba to capture my audio.

Audio Hijack by Rogue Amoeba

Audio Hijack by Rogue Amoeba

Capturing audio separately to video can take a little longer than recording both at once. I find that doing it this way helps me concentrate more on each of the tasks: first, recording my actions on the screen; second, recording my voiceover.

I use Fission by Rogue Amoeba to process my audio before adding it to Camtasia.

Fission by Rogue Amoeba

Fission by Rogue Amoeba

Bought together, Audio Hijack and Fission cost about £43.

Video icons

Putting it all together

Once I’ve written the script, recorded the video and captured the audio, I spend time fitting all the pieces together in Camtasia. I add annotations, effects, and transitions to polish the content and make it ready for publication. It can take a while to build the necessary digital-editing skills to do this. The good news is that there’s a lot of video help at hand on the Camtasia help site.

Once the video and audio are right, the final step is to export and publish the content. For videos that need to be accessible by the public, the easiest options are to use YouTube or Vimeo.

Camtasia can handle the publishing process itself, or you can export the video in MP4 format and then manually upload it to your preferred hosting platform.

On espirian.co.uk, my embedded videos are hosted on Amazon S3. The pay-as-you-go bandwidth model makes S3 very cheap, performance is great and there’s no chance of the audience seeing any ads before, during or after the video.

Wrapping up

So, that’s a quick look at what it takes to put together a screencast. It’s not a simple task but neither is it rocket science. With the right setup and a bit of patience, it’s possible to produce good results without breaking the bank.

If you’d like to know more about screencasting and how it could help your business, please get in touch. I’d love to hear from you.

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Thanks for reading, John Espirian

  • Really useful post John, v. impressed with your technical knowledge! When (if) I take the plunge into screencasting, I’ll know where to come for info 🙂

    • Thanks, Mel. I’d be delighted to give you a hand if and when the time comes.

      Look out for my upcoming blog on editorial pros who use video to promote their services. It might encourage you to take the leap!