Screen Capturing for Everyone

A great deal of companies need promotional and instructional videos created for their software applications, web applications, web stores and other computer-platform products.

There’s a growing need for video producers to “shoot” action contained within a computer monitor. This presents a new set of challenges for traditional camera-based acquisition.

It wasn’t too long ago that the simplest solution for video producers was to run a VGA signal from their computer through a box that converted the signal to the proper video format and into a video camera or tape deck. Then, you’d have to ingest the footage and bring it back into the computer system to edit it.

Today, there are several software solutions that can directly capture display output, keeping the whole process internal and quite simple. In fact, for many instructional video producers, you could get away with never owning a camcorder by simply “shooting” the computer display output with these screen capture software tools. So let’s get down to the basics and show you how to get that website or computer application out of your machine into your next video.

Screen Grab: Snap a Photo First

Sometimes all you need is just a screen grab (i.e., a still image) of your computer output. Screen grabs are simple to capture from your computer. If you’re on a Microsoft Windows computer you can hit the Print Screen key, open up Microsoft Paint (or another photo editing application) and hit Control+V to paste a screen grab into the editing software. You can edit, crop and enlarge your screen grab from there. For Mac users, you can do a similar screen grab by holding Command key, Shift key, and 3 key down together. A screen grab will be captured and a file will be created on your desktop. You can open that file in any photo application you’d like.

Sounds simple enough, but more advanced users might be drawn to a few other tools. One disadvantage to the above solution is that it’s not a very easy process for taking more than a handful of stills. On a Windows machine, you’ve got to keep pasting your screen grabs to new files. There’s a great plug-in that will simplify this process for doing screen grabs of websites. It’s called FireShot and there’s a free version of it for the Firefox Internet browser. FireShot installs into Firefox as a plug-in and allows you to draw an area of the screen within the browser window to capture the display output. Then, the image will automatically load into the photo editing application of your choice. This will save you a few steps, but it only works for web browsing.

More advanced screen grab applications, such as TechSmith’s SnagIt, act as the photo editing application, too. Capturing and editing happens in a much more user-friendly manner. And, many of these tools will allow you to hide the mouse from the output or set a timer to capture the display output after a certain amount of time. These functions benefit producers who are capturing a great deal of screen grabs and need to make a lot of edits to these images.

A great deal of action can be created around still images when your video is showcasing a website or software application. This is because these on-screen properties are usually static. You can make your video much more dynamic by animating the still photos to move and rotate, much like you would in a slideshow. Pan and scan techniques are great. Some producers will even create a mouse icon and animate a mouse giving the presentation more live action then just some still images. Overall, this can be a very effective way to show a display output. But, it can be daunting putting together a whole string of actions, especially for instructional purposes. For this purpose, capturing video of the display output is ideal.

Video Is So Hot Right Now

These days, every website team is adding video to its content strategy. It’s viral. It’s social. It’s instructional. It’s whatever you want it to be. It’s magic. Truthfully, most companies do benefit from just a small bit of video in their web content. Video is one of the best ways to show how a user interface works. If you’re buying software tomorrow and you want to compare products, wouldn’t it be nice to see how easy it is to use the software? On the high end production side, product tours and demos run anywhere between 3-10 minutes in length and require a video professional who can put together a great package, not just a video of some mysterious mouse behavior clicking around on a website. You’ll need a good voiceover, some music and some decent editing chops to pace the video together.

On the low-end side, sometimes you just need a quick and dirty video to demonstrate something that would take too long with text and still images. Video is great for that. It can really make complex instructions very simple. Luckily, there are solutions that are great for meeting all these needs.

TechSmith’s Jing software is free for both Mac and PC platforms and is a great instructional tool. It allows you to quickly take videos (and pics) and upload the file to a server. The file can then be embedded just about anywhere. This is not a good solution for creating a DVD of instructional videos, but if your medium is the Internet, you can quickly put your instructional videos into a blog or webpage. Jing allows you to select an area on your computer screen to capture, then record that area while also recording your computer’s mic input. For a free application, it’s terrific. There’s little to no learning curve and it does what it says it can. But it’s not for high-end projects where you need to keep track of multiple files, set the screen resolution precisely and define the playback experience. All of those options are out of your control.

Another interesting solution is iShowU by shinywhitebox (Mac only). The iShowU software starts where Jing leaves off, allowing you to define video standard resolutions, like DV NTSC at 720×480 pixels. It will even capture 1080p and 720p video. This is ideal for producers who are putting together DVDs or HD video content. It also has some nice features that can be life savers when working on bigger projects. The iShowU software can follow your mouse movements and allows you to define a portion of the screen to capture. It’s weakness is that it’s not a complete solution. If you’re planning on editing a video you’ll have to take the files into another application. For most Mac users this won’t be a huge issue. And, iShowU has several iMovie capture defaults to keep the software compatible with just about any new Mac. A free demo of the software is available, so you can test it out if you’re interested. Otherwise, it’s $30 for the HD version or $60 for the HD Pro version.

Now, weve mentioned these folks twice already, but the fact is that TechSmith has really cornered this market. TechSmith’s Camtasia is the premium solution for video screen capturing. Naturally, the learning curve is much higher than, say, Jing, but overall, it’s not too complicated, especially for video producers who have some basic knowledge of basic video settings. Camtasia has a nice capturing feature that allows you to focus the captured area on a specific window. For example if you wanted to capture the display output within your Internet browser window, it will automatically focus on this area. That way you won’t have to crop out the tool bar, address bar or anything else in post. Another great thing about Camtasia is that it comes preloaded with playback options, so you don’t need to be a Flash wiz to make a playback interface. This can save you a lot of time. The one thing that’s not so great about Camtasia is the built-in video editing tools. As an editor, you might prefer working in your trusted editing software. Their solution is a bit clunky. Camtasia goes for $300 and the value is definitely there if you need a reliable solution that can handle big on-screen projects.


A Few Tricks for Great Presentations

Just like any video you produce, you’ll want to practice good technique. Just because you’re showing a website or software application does not mean you can ignore the rules.

Timing and pacing are extremely important. Make sure you script your action wisely. Your mouse becomes the focal point now. Script out the operator’s actions carefully. Time the movements to pace with a narrator, if there will be a narrator. Pacing can be enhanced with music or even the sound of clicking and typing.

Another great trick, which has been in the video editing playbook for years, is compressing time. Let’s say you’re capturing an instructional video of a website. You want to show users how easy it is to upload a picture to a blog using your web application. Everything is running smoothly. You paced the action perfectly with the mouse movements and narration. But, when your operator clicks on the Upload button, you get about 5 seconds of wait time for the web application to actually upload the photo. You see where I’m going with this? In your editing software, you can compress this time down to a second (or less if you’d like) by simply cutting out that wait time between the click of the button and the “Upload Successful” confirmation message. Movie magic is not just reserved for the sound stage. Use your editing tricks throughout an on-screen production to make the experience better.

Yes, screen-capturing solutions have come a long way, but the techniques that make a great presentation are the same.

Contributing Editor Mark Montgomery is an independent video producer and editor.

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