A long-delayed response to Beth Kanter’s questions about screencasting

As part of my re-exploration of the walled-garden social networks, I’ve accepted the entire batch of LinkedIn invitations that had queued up in my dormant account. One of them was a request from Beth Kanter for advice on screencasting. From my point of view, LinkedIn was superfluous in this case because the same request had already been made (implicitly) in this blog post in which Beth summarizes what she had figured out for herself, and then invites feedback.

Although we should probably not yet simply assume that linking to a blog post will draw the attention of the author of that post, the blogosphere does in fact propagate awareness in that way, and does so with remarkable speed and reliability. So in this case I’d seen Beth’s item before I began receiving requests from her via LinkedIn intermediaries. Because I was boycotting walled-garden social networks at the time, I thought this was a good opportunity to show how, in a case like this, the open Net can obviate the need for a closed network. So I replied to Beth’s blog item in a comment. Or rather, I thought I did. But although I wrote the reply it seems I never managed to post it. Oops. I’m sorry about that, Beth, and I’ll try to make up for it here.

But first, I want to note that your item is a textbook example of how to construct an online query for information. By summarizing what you’ve already learned, you’re helping bring other folks up to speed. At the same time, you’re helping me understand where and how I can add value. This custom is just good common sense, of course, but one that’s honored more often in breach than in the observance. If I were teaching this kind of thing in grade school, I’d use del.icio.us to keep lists of good examples of netiquette, and I’d put this example on one of those lists.

Now, in the context of the genre that I’ve called the conversational demo, here are your questions and my answers.

Q: How much scripting does he do prior to the interview?

A: None.

Q: Does he “rehearse” with his guest?

A: No. I do, of course, choose topics in which I’m interested, and to which I bring plenty of domain knowledge.

Q: Or does he capture everything and edit?

A: Yes. As with my podcasts, I lean heavily on editing when making these conversational screencasts. The editing happens on two levels: macro and micro. On the macro level, because we (interviewer and interviewee) know that whole scenes can be cut, we don’t need to worry about the performance. If something doesn’t work we can just call it a bad take and try again. We can also plan, on the fly, where to go next, again knowing that such discussion is effectively out of band and will be deleted.

On the micro level, there’s internal editing. The term comes from the audio domain and it applies in the same way here. If I can eliminate ums and you knows and false starts without compromising the video, I do.

Q: What tools does he use to capture these interviews?

A: For video I mostly use Camtasia in conjunction with one or another of the many screen-sharing tools. Since most software demos don’t require a high frame rate and don’t push lots of screen bits, that’s usually OK. However in this screencast about tagging in Photo Gallery — which, by the way, was edited down from 35 minutes to 14 minutes — the screen-sharing setup couldn’t keep pace with all the images. So I had Scott Dart record locally using Windows Media Encoder, and then ship me the resulting WMV file. I was able to follow along in screen-sharing well enough to carry on the conversation, even though what was displayed on my screen would have been useless for production. This is a variation of a technique that’s really useful for podcasters who are struggling with expensive and/or poor-quality phone lines. If you can get both parties to record high-quality audio locally, you can use a marginal VoIP setup to converse and then join up the high-quality audio later. I did that here and I’d love to do more shows that way.

For audio I also mostly use Camtasia. Originally I didn’t, I used Audacity, because I hadn’t figured out how to get Camtasia to record the two channels (caller, callee) from my Telos as a stereo track. Eventually I found that setting. It’s in Tools Options -> Streams -> Audio Setup.

Because the conversational screencast is a superset of a podcast, you’re dealing with all of the same audio production issues as in podcasting. For me, working remotely, that’s been an ongoing challenge. Telephone recording is just plain hard. Although I’ve been using a Telos for a while, for example, I only recently discovered that I’d been using it incorrectly. On the other hand, VoIP recording is hard too.

Granted, I wasn’t born with an audio chromosome, but then neither were most folks. So, remote audio is going to be a problem for most of us — a problem that, I reckon, somebody is going to make money by solving. At this point I can muddle through fairly well. But if I hadn’t already invested in the Telos I’d be looking really hard at the technique of recording locally on both ends and then joining the results in post-production. It’s not particularly hard to do that, and it’s really nice to simply abolish all the problems associated with the voice channel — whether it’s the public telephone system or the Internet.

Because it rarely applies to me, I haven’t mentioned the scenario in which both parties are together in the same place looking at the same computer. In that case I’d use whatever capture software was convenient. If the software were on the interviewee’s computer, I’d ask the interviewee to install the free Windows Media Encoder and capture video that way. And I’d probably use a standalone digital audio recorder with a handheld microphone to separately capture audio.

One final point from my recent conversation with Doug Kaye: a lot of people who think they don’t have digital audio recorders overlook the fact that they have camcorders which can perform that function. A related point: if you use a camcorder, it’s tempting to let it do the whole job — that is, screen capture as well as audio capture. Although my Channel 9 colleagues do that all the time, I don’t recommend it. You’d much rather use perfect screen capture than fuzzy camcorder capture. And ideally you’d like to be able to do that without installing any software on the target computer, using a direct-capture device. I’ve never seen one of those, but next week in Redmond I’ll be visiting our new production studio where I’m told we have such a beast. I’m curious to see it in action.

Q: Does he edit in Camtasia?

A: Yes, I do. I’d honestly rather edit in iMovie instead, because I find it to be more elegant and more capable, but it’s a huge hassle to get stuff in and out of iMovie so I usually take the path of least resistance and edit in Camtasia. If you want to do micro-edits in Camtasia, one important tip is to record at a higher frame rate than you will ultimately produce. A screencast is legible at 5 or even fewer frames per second. But if you only capture at that rate, you’ll find that you can’t make intra-frame audio micro-edits. So record at 15 or more frames per second, then produce at a lower rate.

Q: What are some best practices in terms of production and editing?

A: It’s tempting to jump in and start editing right away, and to be honest I often do. But I think it’s better to just watch the raw recording all the way through, setting markers along the way to annotate the segments that you want to include, discard, or perhaps rearrange. Ultimately you’re trying to tell a story, and those markers will help you visualize the outline of the story.

Sorry this took so long, Beth. I hope it helps.

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5 thoughts on “A long-delayed response to Beth Kanter’s questions about screencasting

  1. This is extremely helpful – thanks and going to apply to this next screencast project … And I might add this is a powerful example of how blogs can be used for personal learning and connecting with experts who may share their knowledge. In fact, I’m going to use this as example in my Web2.0 workshops …

    Unfortunately, I can’t apply to the screencast on Google Analytics I’ve been struggling with and should be editing right now because the deadline looms …. Deadlines and learning your craft in an experimental medium are compatible ..!

    So, what I did was to fall back on the approach I’ve used in the past — what I loosely call the documentary/instructional movie approach. Here’s of one about tagging http://www.projectstreamer.com/users/kanter/withntenlogo/withntenlogo.html

    For the Google Analytics screencast, I did not bring any domain expertise to the topic! Perhaps that was my first mistake. Do you stick to your comfort zone and only make screencasts on the topics that you know like the back of your hand or do you stretch and venture into a topic or software that is not only new territory but may be difficult to learn?

    So, my screencast making was also a method for learning, although it very very slow — especially when you a vertical monopoly on your screencast. I had to do a lot of background reading and interviewing. I blogged all my research notes. http://beth.typepad.com/beths_blog/google/index.html

    That of course, led to readers posting comments and more insights and even connected me with Avinash Kaushik who I interviewed in Ready/Talk and recorded it – using the recording for note taking as the wmv file is not standard and could not be successfully edited in Camtasia ..arrgh.

    However, what you have shared has given me some great insights about my approach to this genre vis a vis technical and creative possibilities. Thank you!

  2. Just remembered how I used Ustream Producer when I recorded my video game at my desktop and transmit it to my webcam. It is just recently, I’ve known that it is available either in free version or pro version. I think I’ll be using the advanced one next time.

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