An overview of all the elements involved in producing screencasts at different levels of complexity, and for a variety of educational purposes. We examine some technical tools and methods for screencast creation from the ground up, and for those already familiar with screencasting there are ideas and tips for improving quality and effectiveness.
- What is a screencast?
- The components of a screencast
- Screencasting workflow
Screencasting is a valuable tool for presentation, software demonstration and digital storytelling. It draws on and combines many areas of digital media, and incorporates a wide range of skills, so in the interests of brevity some of its more advanced aspects are mentioned here only in passing. Where possible we have tried to signpost further resources which give more detailed advice about separate stages of the workflow.
In this document we explain what a screencast is, and identify the elements of screencast production. We'll give an overview of the screencast production timeline, map the production and delivery workflow, and suggest guidelines for:
- Hardware and software selection and set-up
- Production and editing techniques
- Branding and quality control
- Working formats and final formats
- Developing software templates and reusable content
There will (appropriately) be several demo screencasts inserted at relevant points, to help illustrate the processes we're explaining.
A screencast in its most basic form is a video of your computer screen's activity. It allows you to capture what you are doing on your computer in real time as a video , for instance:
- Presentation (e.g. PowerPoint)
- Demonstration of software
- Any other process on the computer (e.g. navigating a website)
This process is called 'screen capture'. We introduce it at more length in our document Screencasting: Broadcasting On-screen Activity
In addition to screen capture, a screencast will include a voice-over, describing the screen action, delivering the presentation or other content, offering guidance or training in a software process etc. This voice-over is usually recorded at the same time as the screen capture, to ensure synchronisation, though it can be recorded afterwards - a process known as 'dubbing'. Next to the screen capture itself, this narration is the most important element of the screencast, as the voice which will guide the viewer through the content.
In this sense, when a viewer watches a screencast it is equivalent to them sitting next to someone and watching what they are doing on their computer screen, while being talked through it. The screen content and audio are of equal importance.
As well as the fundamentals of screen capture and voice-over, more sophisticated screencasts can incorporate:
- Presentation slides
- Text and subtitles
- Graphics and screen annotation
- Branding and identifiers (idents)
and can be almost like mini television programmes.
Screencasts are delivered as video files, usually via the internet.
Why a screencast?
Sometimes the best way to teach someone how to do something is to show them, and certainly for training or demonstrating techniques used in software or on the web, a screencast is an effective way to do this. As a learning object, a screencast is consistent, can be followed methodically, paused, repeated, and the pace and emphasis controlled by the learner themself. The audiovisual nature of screencasts can make them a good tool for offering accessibility to a range of learners.
- Speed of production
Lengthy text documents can be very time consuming to prepare and proof, especially when they are describing a step-by-step process or detailed technical information. Screencasts can, by contrast, be very quick to record and deliver, especially if the presenter is both fluent in communication of the material, and comfortable with their screencasting tools and workflow.
Once a workflow is established for screencast production, time-saving tools such as templates are prepared, and all production stages are standardised and practiced, polished screencasts are quick and easy to make. Tellingly, the screencast sections of this document took considerably less time to prepare than the text!
- Software/web demonstration
- Workflow demonstration
- File name
- Copyright & ownership information
- Audio materials
- Incidental music
- Sound effects
- Presenter (picture-in-picture, presenter, physical process e.g. key combinations)
- Video materials
- Branding (idents, logos, bugs etc)
Screencasting workflow diagram. Click image to see a larger version.
Before starting any production or recording for the screencast, you need to establish the intended
- Learning goals
As pointed out above, I'm not going to tell you what to make your screencast about - the possibilities are endless! Having said that, try to bear in mind the final delivery environment(s), and remember the limitations of the medium when planning your screencast. Keep the desired learning objectives as your core focus, and don't confuse your audience with excessive, spurious information. Consider the whole learning experience.
Make as much information as possible accessible through the combination of screen and audio - backing up the information from one with the other will help push home your point, so don't just silently rely on screen action speaking for itself, or conversely allow long spoken passages without any visual feedback. Again, take your lead from educational television programmes, noting how the best ones interleave visual and audio elements.
If you feel your presentation style will really help engage the audience, then think about including a small picture-in-picture video feed if you have a webcam and your software allows.
Are you making a one-off screencast? Or is this one of (possibly the beginning of) a series? Is the screencast a learning or revision module? How familiar are your audience with you and the material being presented?
All these considerations and more will affect the level and tone at which you need to pitch your screencast.
What skills do I need?
How long is a piece of string? Screencasts can be made with the very basic skills of operating a computer whilst talking; most of us can manage that. If, however, you want to go beyond the basics then you can develop skills in presentation, voiceover, audio and video recording, editing and processing, podcast design... basically anything involved in producing digital media! This sounds intimidating, but it needn't be.
There are (or were until very recently) relatively few formal courses in audio-visual production techniques, and many audio and video professionals learned their skills 'on the job'. Often the best way to learn these multi-disciplinary skills is to make something, and solve problems and make improvements as the opportunities present themselves.
JISC Digital Media offers a wide range of workshop based training in various areas of media production within an educational context, many of which are directly applicable to screencast production, management and use, so please contact us with your requirements and we can help you build the skills to meet your needs.
Will I need help?
Simple screencasting is a one person job - you can do it sitting in front of your computer in your home, classroom or office. However, if you plan to include more complex material in your screencast then you may need collaborators to operate cameras, gather material, or use their skills in media editing, processing or manipulation. Working together creating these kind of multimedia projects can be rewarding and fun, and you may be lucky enough to have colleagues happy to share their expertise, or the facilities to put together a production team.
If you are new to delivering video materials via your chosen channel, then you may also need the assistance of IT experts within your institution, so ask their advice at the planning stage to ensure that they are happy and able to support you as necessary.
What equipment do I need?
- Computer with screen capture software (or access to the internet)
Choosing a screen capture application for your platform
Is simple one-take screen capture sufficient?
- There are many free tools which offer this
Do you need to edit and arrange different types of media?
- More sophisticated software may be necessary
Are there output options available which suit your chosen delivery method (e.g. VLE, mobile devices, embedded Flash players, web services...)?
- Does the software offer download or rendering in a popular format - e.g. MPEG-4, Flash or Quicktime Movie?
- What is the delivery environment?
- What are the needs of your audience?
There are many free and/or online alternatives with basic features, suitable for relatively simple screen capture + audio, including:
These free tools are ideal for those on a limited (or zero) budget, or if you only require fairly basic features. All offer the key elements of screen capture + audio, with some offering picture-in-picture video capture, subtitles, and even some basic editing tools. With a little ingenuity and practice, they can generate great results.
More sophisticated tools offer advanced editing and interaction for the more advanced user looking for a tool for compiling more sophisticated content. These give you more editing features and customisation options, and offer a lot more flexibility (for a price):
and some institutional tools, hosted centrally, with users able to submit content from many locations across (or even outside) the site
These last three systems are suitable only for institutions with multiple users and/or sites, requiring integration with site networks and VLE.
We compare the features of a few of these applications in our document Introducing Screen Capture Software. Your institution may already have a site license or recommended tool. Whatever your educational goals, we can offer further advice, tailored to your needs, through our helpdesk.
If you cannot see the video above, please use this link to download the video file (21MB) or open in a separate window.
Choosing a microphone
You can refer to our Microphone Guide and guides to Choosing an Audio Interface for in-depth advice about microphones and interfaces for different tasks, and for recording audio to different standards. However, a simple solution for recording voiceovers to an acceptable standard for many users will be a USB microphone. This will plug into a USB port on your computer and does all its own digital conversion, obviating the need for a soundcard, and offers by far the simplest set-up procedure, and good consistency of results. USB microphones come in different forms (vocal mics, headsets, miniature ambient mics etc) and at various price points suitable to different budgets.
Samson Go Mic miniature USB microphone
Many laptops (and even desktops) now include a built-in microphone, which may be sufficient to your needs, and many users will already have combined microphone/headphone headsets; these are all fine for simple audio capture, though more sophisticated (and expensive) mics and soundcards will give correspondingly better results.
Pretty much any computer running any operating system is capable of screen capture with compatible software or online screen capture tools. However, setting up a computer workstation for audio recording has a few more particular demands if you want to capture good quality audio. The acoustic properties of your workspace should be assessed, both for recording and listening.
A conducive environment will make the business of presenting, recording and working on your screencasts more successful and enjoyable. Choosing a quiet time and a good acoustic space, closing the doors, switching off the air conditioning, positioning your microphone carefully and using it correctly - all these will affect the sound quality of your screencast. Don't underestimate the role of clear and confident audio in conveying your message.
Of course, there will be limitations on what you can choose or change, but if you get the chance then some forethought and simple techniques can save you time and improve your results:
Further advice: Setting up an Audio Workspace
Disabling system alerts
One practical tip for successful screen capture is to disable all system alert sounds and messages before commencing recording. A notification of a new email or instant message can ruin an otherwise good take, so either disable system sounds in the Control Panel, or quit background applications such as email, chat or calendars when preparing your system (after you've checked you aren't missing a meeting of course!).
Similarly to avoid audible interruptions to your voiceover recording, switch your mobile to silent, unplug the phone, and try to ensure a quiet environment for the duration of your recording.
- Webcam for capturing video of presenter, interviews, or other sections of informal video
- Video camera for capturing video materials for inclusion in presentation/demonstration
- Mobile audio recorder for capturing location audio (e.g. vox pop, lecture or discussion)
Do you have permission to use all materials which you are recording and using in your screencast? Check this before you start. You must gain clearance for using other people's materials within a screencast in the same way as you would for any other document. For more information see our advice document Copyright and Other Rights for Creating Time-based Media Resources
You may need clearance to use video and audio materials, images, website graphics, audio and/or video recordings of participants in interviews, vox pop etc, and even the graphical user interface of the applications you are using or demonstrating.
We have extensive advice on gaining clearance for all types of digital media usage throughout our website, and for sourcing materials for use in all types of digital learning objects, and offer copyright and rights management workshops.
Connect your microphone:
How will it connect to your computer?
- USB mics plug directly into USB ports without needing a soundcard
- Most soundcards have a microphone input
Go to your computer's Control Panel (Control Panel>Sounds and Audio Devices>Audio):
- Select the microphone input as the default recording source
- Adjust mic input level (see below)
- Open your screen capture applications Options or Preferences pane, and select your microphone as the input source.
Set the input level so that it is not too high (distorted) or too low (faint and noisy). Level meters on your recording software should peak at 75-80% at the loudest input level you will need to record.
Do you need to record system audio as well?
- Some applications will allow you to record system audio (e.g. web sounds, or a video's audio soundtrack) in addition to voice (i.e. microphone) input.
- Most simpler applications will only allow a single simultaneous audio source - i.e. microphone or system audio but not both
Testing your system
Test screen capture by starting screen recording, then opening a website (e.g. YouTube), or using another application with plenty of on-screen activity. A short section - 30 seconds or so - should do. Explain what you are doing at the same time, so you can check audio levels, microphone position etc are OK.
Stop recording and view the results
Assessing your test screen capture:
Is the resolution and frame rate suitable for your uses?
- Can they be increased to improve quality?
- Can they be decreased to reduce file size?
Is the capture area the right size and position?
- Are all important elements visible?
- Are you recording redundant, unused space?
Is the microphone being recorded?
- Check the connections
- Check it is selected as the audio input source
Is the audio level OK?
- Is it distorted? turn it down
- Is it faint or thin? turn it up
Make any necessary adjustments, and test again. Repeat the process until you are happy with the results.
What preparation should I do?
Recording a screencast is in many ways a recording of a live performance. Additionally, the less editing and correction of your recordings you need to do post-production, the easier and quicker - and often better quality - will be the results. Performance depends largely on preparation and confidence, both with the environment and the material. The system tests above should allow you to get comfortable with the screen capture controls and the microphone, but you should also ensure all your presentation materials are close at hand and ready for use.
Before recording anything, review the materials you will need to access during your screencast, and make sure everything is where you expect it to be, and responding correctly. There's nothing more frustrating than being on a roll with your presentation, only to have a page not open, an application not respond, or to find a crucial file is not where it should be, and have to stop and lose your flow.
Once your materials are in place, you're ready to capture Take One.
One of the golden rules in any studio is to RECORD EVERYTHING. It's easy enough to delete duff takes, but you can't press record after the event! By all means do rehearsals, but RECORD IT. Just in case.
If you stumble on a word, repeat it and carry on. You may be surprised how unimportant a small slip is in the context of an otherwise uninterrupted presentation, so don't get hung up on everything being perfect!
Record Area - consider which areas of the screen the viewer needs to see. Most screen capture software will allow you to select either to record the full screen or a selected area.
- Avoid unnecessary screen clutter
- Think about how it may look when scaled down to a smaller size
Frame Rate - the number of times per second the screen is captured. The higher the frame rate, the smoother the action, but the larger the video file size; lower frame rates look more 'jerky', but generate smaller files.
- Lower frame rates (3-5 frames per second - fps) are often fine for software demos or simple presentations.
- Higher frame rates (15+ fps) are required for capturing video or animated elements smoothly [as a guide, TV frame rate = 25fps]
Mouse highlight & click indication - some screen capture applications offer a highlighted cursor, and can superimpose a small animated graphic over the cursor whenever a mouse button is clicked, using different colours to indicate different buttons etc. These can assist viewers in following what is being done by the operator. Especially useful for software demonstrations.
Use the best microphone available to you.
- USB microphones are a simple way of capturing good sound
- Headset microphones vary in quality, but are often fine for basic use. Again, USB connection simplifies set-up procedures.
Even if your intended audience already know who you are, it can help establish the instructor/learner relationship if you begin by introducing yourself. It's also a simple way to identify the resource's creator/author/owner.
- The further away the mic is from the speaker, the more room echo will be apparent. Generally the closer the narrator is to the microphone the better. Close positioning can also enhance bass response, and give a richer sound to the voice. However, beware distortion from getting too close!
- Move the microphone slightly to the side of the mouth, or speak across it, to avoid popping (distortion of 'p' and 'b' consonants)
- Relax and use your normal voice and style. A natural presentation is more engaging than a formal, stilted one - even if it is less scripted and/or polished!
Many screencasting applications now allow capture direct from PowerPoint. Slides are stored as simple images (JPEG or similar) which are timestamped for synchronisation with playback of other media elements. This has several advantages:
- Smaller file size than equivalent video capture
- Captures at correct resolution
- Automatically indexed by time and slide title*
- Slide notes can be displayed as subtitles*
*selected screencasting applications only
but a couple of disadvantages too:
- Transitions are lost
- Embedded video and audio materials are lost
- Builds and animations may confuse the indexing system
If key elements of your presentation involve embedded video, audio and/or transitions, then conventional screen capture at a suitable frame rate is recommended, rather than 'PowerPoint capture' mode, if this choice is available to you.
The majority of screencasting applications can use an attached camera (or video source eg DVD player) to record live video alongside screen and audio capture. Usually used to capture video of the presenter for picture-in-picture (talking head).
System audio should be captured if system sounds are desired, or your presentation materials include playback of audio within PowerPoint, web browser etc.
Some applications allow only a single audio source, so any additional audio will have to be edited in or dubbed during post-production. If you are using a Macintosh running OSX you can merge multiple sound sources using the free Soundflower utility.
Importing images, video and audio
More sophisticated screencast editors allow other files to be imported into the project and combined with existing 'live capture' content. Still image, video and audio files can be placed in the timeline, resized and layered to provide a rich multimedia experience.
When producing a series of screencasts, there will be common and repeated elements like titles, fonts, graphics, idents etc.
- Agree on software, tools and settings
- Create a template, including these elements and any other settings which are common to all your screencasts, in your chosen screencasting application
- Define common content
- Branding, graphics, idents, fonts etc
- Configure and save templates
If you cannot see the video above, please use this link to download the video file (9.8MB) or open in a separate window.
Our template includes:
- Branded intro sequence
- Audio ident
- Custom video transition fade in/out
- End ident
- Title text placeholder
- Default resolution setting
- Default font(s)
- Default export settings
Arranging and editing
How much editing does your material require? Be realistic about what level of polish is required in your final edit. Audio and video editing can be a very time consuming process, especially if you are new to it. Of course you want to produce a good result, but don't get hung up on minutiae - see the big picture.
Simple editing together of your content is however quite straightforward. Using short audio and video crossfades (fading one signal down as the other fades up) are a simple and effective way of making smooth transitions between sections.
- Arrange your content in order along the timeline
- Transitions or fades will make breaks between sections smoother
- Ensure that audio levels are balanced and consistent
- Consider high quality educational programmes, such as those made by the BBC - content is often broken up into easy-to-digest chunks, and interspersed with different audio and video elements to hold the attention of the audience
Some editing environments will give the opportunity to apply digital audio processing. While this is by no means compulsory, voiceovers may sometimes benefit from some compression and dynamics processing and/or equalisation. Our advice documents Audio Processing - Dynamics and Compression and Digital Equalisation give some illustrations of common audio treatments used for processing the spoken word.
Incidental music and sound effects
Music can help engage your audience, and lend a professional sheen to your productions. Ensure, however, that you have permission to use any music used at any point in your screencast, including any accompanying a video or presentation segment.
It is also quite simple to add a distinctive sound or clip of music at the beginning and/or end of the screencast as an audio identifier or 'ident'. See our advice document on Creating an Audio Ident for some ideas about how to go about making your own.
Titles, index, idents, credits and branding
Any additional on-screen text and graphical elements of your screencast should be considered in terms of improving usability and access, and institutional branding.
Titles and credits inform the viewer of the contents and authorship of the resource, and an index can be useful for helping the user navigate longer screencasts. These sequences can also include logos and other graphical branding elements, and strengthen your brand identity and therefore make attribution easier and unauthorised use more difficult. See the beginning of the Microphone Technique and Placement screencast above for several examples.
As well as helping to create a more professional feel to the final product, I add many of these elements to make our materials easily identifiable as JISC Digital Media content. Your institution or organisation will probably have similar graphics and brand guidelines (recommended fonts etc) which you can use to identify your productions in a similar way.
Screen Annotation and Subtitles
Some screencast applications allow the annotation of screen actions with overlaid text and graphics - for example arrows, underlining or boxes to highlight particular areas of the screen or specific actions. These are positioned on a separate track on the timeline, alongside the video/screen capture track(s). Annotations can be assigned transparency, resized, coloured and rotated, and faded in and out like other visual elements.
Subtitles can be inserted over the video elements of the screencast at appropriate points in the timeline for correct synchronisation. As mentioned previously, some applications can us PowerPoint slide notes to automatically generate synchronised subtitles.
Screencast - Overview of an editing environment:
If you cannot see the video above, please use this link to download the video file (62MB) or open in a separate window.
Rendering and export
Consider your audience's needs
- Device compatibility
- Multiple export formats/sizes for different uses
- File size considerations - quality vs size
- Standards compliance
- Do the export format and settings of the final object adequately convey the content?
- Is important text readable?
- Is audio quality sufficient for extended/repeated listening? etc.
Target format resolution,and file size
There are several potential output video formats, some or all of which will be available when rendering your screencast master. Your delivery channel may have a recommended video format and/or resolution for screencasts, but a good rule of thumb is to use the MP4 video format with a vertical resolution of 720 pixels. This should ensure readability of any on-screen text. Your content and/or audience may however have different requirements which necessitate use of an alternative format and resolution suitable for a specific usage.
Screencasts destined for mobile devices typically have a resolution of 480x320 pixels. This will obviously significantly affect the clarity of small ojects, details and text, so bear this in mind when designing your resource. Some (most notably Apple) mobile devices do not support Flash video.
Screencasts can either be incorporated into a 'live' event (e.g. a lecture or seminar), embedded into an online resource (i.e. a website) or made available for download by the final user.
Hosting within your institution
Using your institution's network to host your screencasts gives most control over access and archiving. Intranet hosting is required for adherance to some education-only types of copyright usage. Additionally your institution's Information Services department may have a policy regarding external hosting.
- VLE - upload to relevant Course Area as a video file
- Video podcast - create a video podcast feed on your website or VLE
- Website - make screencasts available for streaming and/or download from your institute's website
- Institutional screencast delivery tool (e.g. Panopto) - some institutional screencast/lecture capture tools have corresponding delivery tools suited to their proprietary capture formats
Hosting your screencasts through an online video hosting service such as YouTube or Vimeo passes the burden of storage and streaming to a third party. Large online video providers have huge bandwidth, sleek user interfaces, facilities for comments, viewing statistics etc, all of which can make managing your screencasts easier, while reducing demands on your institution's network. However, there can also be repercussions concerning access and ownership of materials, and storage of sensitive data. Make sure to check terms and conditions carefully, and to investigate any potential conflicts with your institution's legal or IS representatives.
- Hosted video player (e.g. YouTube) - make content publicly available, or accessible only by a specified group
- Hosted screencasts (e.g. Screenr) - many screencast software manufacturers offer facilities for online hosting suited to their products' output
- iTunes U - audio and video podcast hosting suitable for many types of screencast material
Further information about specific external hosting in our advice document Using Web-based Services for Hosting Videos
Tagging and metadata
Your final target file type will determine the tags and metadata which you can attach to it. The file title can also of course convey information about its contents, so name your screencasts in a clear, consistent fashion. If you use MP4 as your output format then there are many metadata editors available for tagging according to different popular conventions, for example Atomic Parsley. Further information is included in our advice document AAC Audio and the MP4 Media Format.
When adding tags to your files, key information might include
- Copyright ownership
- Is it an episode of a series?
- Is it a course module?
For detailed information regarding metadata management for digital video files of all types refer to our advice document Metadata and Digital Video.
If your screencast's audio content includes key information which may need to be accessed by audio-impaired learners then look at methods for adding
- Text transcription
- Descriptive metadata
Similarly, if the video element contains key points then make sure to describe them when appropriate. As well as supporting visually impaired learners, this will also be useful if you are intending to produce low video resolution or audio-only versions.
Archiving is an essential stage of the digital lifecycle, as it allows digital resources to be stored long term for future use, in a form which is searchable, stable and secure. Screencasts, in common with most media projects, can be archived at two levels.
Firstly you should keep an archive of your final outputs, named, tagged and catalogued. This can be done either by archiving the highest reolution 'master' which you have, from which subsequent compressed or alternative versions can be generated or transcoded, or by storing all project outputs in their various final delivery formats (e.g. different versions for full resolution, mobile device, web delivery etc). The latter is the more complete solution, but requires more storage space.
Secondly you can choose to keep backups of your projects themselves, complete with raw materials, edits, effects, transitions etc. We would recommend this archiving practice where possible, and where storage allows. For example, if using Camtasia Studio to capture, compile and edit your screencasts then you can archive the .cmproj file, which contains all the elements of your screencast in 'raw' form, allowing you to return to it and re-edit or repurpose any of the content. These files are, however, usually considerably larger than the final masters. As an example, the full resolution 960x720px mp4 master of one of my screencasts is 94Mb. The corresponding .cmproj project file is 298Mb
As screencasts are video files at heart, the same guidelines for resource management apply to both. Refer to Moving Image Advice: Managing your digital resources for recommended best practice.