Creating a Screencast, Part 2: Recording Tips
To be sure, there are many factors to consider when you sit down to record a screencast. We covered the hardware and software “raw materials” in the previous installment of this series. In this installment we cover a comprehensive laundry list of best practices for ensuring a top quality product.
While you can (and should) correct mistakes and “buff up” your audiovisual quality during post-production, you will have maximum flexibility if you record your source videos with optimum settings. One guiding principle is what we call the “mezzanine” approach to screencast recording.
What the mezzanine approach says is that if we record our screencast with really high-quality settings, we have the flexibility to gracefully degrade quality during post-production. On the other hand, if we record our screencast initially with low-quality settings, our options for improving the audio visual quality during post-production is drastically reduced.
Let’s start by giving you the suggestion list in a list format; we will then break down each one of the following suggestions in greater detail:
The following sections will cover:
- Choose what to record
- Clean up your desktop
- Hide personal and/or proprietary information
- Choose an appropriate frame rate
- Consider mouse pointer enhancements
- Choose an appropriate aspect ratio
Choose What to Record
Please don’t assume that you have to record your computer desktop in full-screen mode when you record a screencast. This is especially true if you have one of those funky widescreen monitors that is set up in a non 16:9 aspect ratio (we’ll cover the aspect ratio issue later in this article).
Instead, ask yourself what, at base, the screencast audience needs to see, and set your recording dimensions at that level.
For instance, when displaying PowerPoint slides, I will sometimes record a 1024x768 frame, and simply resize my PowerPoint application window (specifically the slide area) to fit the frame size (see Figure 1).
Figure 1 Recording part of the computer screen
Another example would be a software demonstration. Why not set your recording frame to the dimensions of the application rather than include distracting elements such as your desktop icons and Windows taskbar?
Clean Up Your Desktop
Speaking of distraction, nothing throws off the main points of your screencast like unnecessary screen elements to get your audience thinking things like “Oh, it was 10:58pm when Tim recorded that. What was he doing up doing work at that hour for?”
Please take the time to clean up your Windows desktop of any identifying information. Don’t use anything other than a solid-color desktop background because your file size and video quality will suffer besides creating the distraction factor.
With respect to desktop icons, there should only be the default ones as well as any files/icons that relate to your subject matter.
The taskbar should have the clock and notification icons hidden, and there should be no extraneous taskbar icons.
It is considered best practice not to reveal your screencasting software to the audience. Therefore, we don’t want to see the flashing Camtasia Recorder icon in your system tray.
Figure 2 shows a nice clean desktop, ready to rock for screencasting.
Figure 2 A nice, clean Windows desktop
Hide Personal and/or Proprietary Information
When you demonstrate procedures in a screencast, be mindful of unintentionally revealing personal or company confidential information. For instance, you might be demonstrating how to open a file on your computer. When you browse through Windows Explorer, is the screencasting audience seeing the contents of your Documents folder? This probably is not a good idea.
Likewise, you don’t want to reveal names of internal servers, folder names, etc. You can remove a lot of this stuff during post-production. However, it is best to trap this error prior to recording time.
Consider Mouse Pointer Enhancements
First of all, we want to be mindful to avoid spastic mouse movements (more on this in a later tip). Second, we may want to consider mouse pointer enhancements, which are included in the major screencasting software packages.
The upside to these visual enhancements is that they make the mouse pointer more visible to your audience (see Figure 3). The risk, of course, is that the enhancements (which not only take the form of video cues, but also audio ones, like a “click” sound when you click the mouse) may become a distraction.
Figure 3 Mouse pointer highlighting
Bottom line: Use this feature with discretion, and above all else, don’t use it as an excuse to be lazy with your mouse movements.
Choose an Appropriate Frame Rate
We have to remember that video is nothing more than a sequence of still images. The higher we set our frame rate, the smoother the effect of video motion. If we set the recording frame rate too low, then the video becomes choppy and looks awful.
The bottom line here is that we need to ask ourselves how much motion our screencast is seeking to capture. If we are walking our audience through a PowerPoint slide show with no animation, then we can get away with a frame rate of 5 to 8 frames per second.
On the other hand, if we are demonstrating software that involves a fair amount of movement, then we want a frame rate of between 10 and 15 frames per second. In my experience, you never want to go too much below 10 and too much about 15 fps in screencasting (see Figure 4).
Figure 4 Video config settings in Camtasia Studio 7
Choose an Appropriate Aspect Ratio
The first question you need to ask yourself with respect to video aspect ratio is whether you are targeting the widescreen (16:9) format or the standard (4:3) format. Once you make this decision, you can then determine your target video dimensions using multiples of one of the aforementioned ratios.
As I stated earlier in this article, you want to definitely avoid using non-standard aspect ratio values because you will find that the video quality will degrade during post-production resizing, and you may wind up with those annoying vertical and/or horizontal letterbox bars to compensate for the non-standard aspect ratio with which the video was originally recorded. Here are some sites to use when evaluating aspect ratio: