I hope you all remember the interview of Michael Pick, the light-bulb engineer at Automattic Inc. Today, I present the interview with Ian Ozsvald, a professional screencaster. The professional journey of Ian is pretty interesting and I’m sure the in-depth answers that he has given will surely benefit you in case you are planning to do screencasts professionally or for your own blog.

1. Before we proceed with the questions related to Screencasting, it would be great if you could give us some information about yourself and how you jumped in the screencasting industry. Do tell us more about your company.

ProCasts makes professional screencasts for companies to convert more visitors into users, hence improving the company’s income. Currently it is me and my 3 years of screencasting experience, shortly I’ll be expanding to bring more skills into the company including animators and graphic designers. We’re based in the UK so the ‘voice of ProCasts’ is that of a clear, educated UK male.

ProCasts grew out of my role creating and growing ShowMeDo. ShowMeDo is a peer-produced screencast site focused on teaching you new skills about open-source software. Kyran Dale and I started the site 3 years ago because, quite simply, no screencast-focused site for open-source existed. Now we get over 100,000 users a month watching tutorials made by over 100 authors, 1/7th of the tutorials are mine covering topics like Python programming, Firefox and of course Screencasting.

During our growth I’d get approached by companies asking for professional promotional and tech-support screencasts, this activity first became ‘ShowMeDo Services’ and then grew into my ProCasts. ProCasts is now my primary activity.

Whilst the job of ProCasts is to provide the requested screencast, we take the job of delivering the *right* screencast very seriously. Each screencasts carries a full money back guarantee – if it doesn’t achieve the desired results then we don’t feel we deserve to be paid (I hasten to add – nobody has ever requested a refund!).

Prior to all of this I’m a trained Artificial Intelligence researcher with 5 years experience running multi-national teams solving cutting-edge problems. I’m also somewhat an academic – I feel that learning and spreading knowledge is a way to make the world a better place. Screencasting helps fulfill this role as videos are a very efficient way of showing a remote user exactly how something works and why they should pay attention and get more involved.

2. Which software do you use for creating screencasts and if you were to suggest any software for amateurs then which software will be those?

I do all my work on a Windows XP machine using CamTasia 6 and professional audio equipment. CamTasia 6 cannot be beaten on Windows, for the money you get excellent tools which can be picked up within an hour. I record all my audio using Audacity, this gives me excellent control for editing and provides tools like level-compression to balance out dominant frequencies.

If you are using Windows and you’re serious about screencasting I’d strongly suggest getting the 30 day free trial of CamTasia. If you’re on a budget then the open-source CamStudio is free and ‘pretty good’ (see CamStudio tutorials at ShowMeDo). If you couple it with VirtualDubMod you get rudimentary editing features with a fairly easy learning curve all for free. Audacity is a great open-source audio editor if your sound-track needs cleaning up.

On a Mac I believe that ScreenFlow is favoured, I also know that iShowU is a nice tool.

For Linux I recommend RecordMyDesktop.

If you’re experimenting then do try TechSmith’s Jing (they make CamTasia), ScreenToaster and ScreencastOMatic, these are web-based screencasting tools so you don’t have to install anything. The downside is reduced capture rates and a lack of editing tools but they’re great for easy experimentation.

3. What is your choice and why (specifically in relation with Screencasts) Mac, Windows or Linux | Commercial software or Open-source?

Often I create screencasts for Windows desktop software, so Windows is my primary platform. Typically I use Firefox or Safari for website-based screencasts, so the underlying platform isn’t so important. I definitely recommend commercial screencasting software as the capture codec and editing tools are superior to free alternatives.

Macs have a wider range of editing tools and shortly we’ll be using Macs alongside Windows. Linux users have the hardest time – the screencasting tools aren’t so powerful and the editors have a steeper learning curve, hopefully as the market grows this will improve. If I need to make Linux screencasts I use a virtual environment like VirtualBox running Ubuntu on Windows.

4. Is there any special hardware required when it comes to doing the recording or any high end microphone is good enough for recording. What precautions should be taken to reduce the background noise?

Inside ShowMeDo I started with a low-end 3.5mm analgue mic, over the years I have upgraded my setup to the point that I only use studio-quality recording gear (currently an se2200a mic with phantom power on a vibration-free mount).

Along the way I have also used a ATM73a headset and Shure SM57 (as used by US presidents!). The choice of upgrade reflected the increased quality of my vocal work – I kept hearing the noise on lower-end mics and wanted clear, noise-free sound-tracks.

For those experimenting you’ll go a long way with a reasonable low-end USB mic, around ¬£30UK/$40US. USB is digital so all the analogue noise-problems involving 3.5mm jacks (the noise often comes from within the motherboard!) are avoided, basic USB mics generally don’t need drivers and will work anywhere.

Make sure you always speak to the mic from the same direction and distance – if you turn your head or change your distance you’ll alter the volume of your voice, this will come through on the final recording.

You can use post-processing to remove undesirable noise but the main advice is to try to record clean sounds from the outset. Cover your PC with a thick blanket to reduce fan/hard-drive noise, shut your windows, unplug fans or pumps (e.g. in a fridge/freezer) – do everything you can to reduce the background noise that will reach your mic.

After recording do a noise-removal step, Audacity is great for this, most screencasting programs also have this built-in. Make sure you only pick a region of pure background noise (no clicks, certainly no speech) when sampling the background noise.

Audacity also lets you apply ‘audio compression’ – this levels out strong bass or treble features so the overall shape of the sound is more balanced. Normalise the audio to -3db so it is ‘fairly loud’ at a normal volume setting, this means it’ll sound just fine on most people’s PCs. If you have strong sibilants you may need to manually lower the volume (use ‘fade out’ or ‘adjust volume’ in Audacity) of the sibilant section lest the strong ‘essess’ hiss at a painfully loud volume.

When you breathe or cought it’ll sound bad if it stays in the final recording – Audacity can easily be used to delete the offending sound replacing that region with no sound at all. If you’ve removed background noise already then you’ll have a perfect noiseless region in place of breaths.

Definitely do pay attention to the quality of your audio, removing noise and cutting out unnecessary pauses are great first steps to making a sound-track that others will enjoy listening to.

Consider using low-volume background music – not only does it set the scene but it can also cover up bad vocals!

5. Your Examples page lists a set of your clients, can you share any wonderful experiences?

The most recent excellent experience was working with Justin of AppBeacon just two days before Christmas. He expected Christmas to be a bumper period for iPhone activations and he wanted his AppBeacon – an improved guide to iPhone apps – to be primed for the new visitors.

His problem was that users didn’t understand his service and tended to click away too soon. Rather than spend money increasing his in-bound traffic he wanted to convert more visitors into signed-up members and active users. He contacted me two days before Christmas with his brief.

I’d planned to take a whole week off for Christmas but could see the opportunity for Justin to build his business. In 48 hours we developed the script and I delivered a finished screencast on Christmas Eve, we’ve documented the process on our respective blogs.

In his write-up Justin delivers two great quotes. First, we achieved his goals to improve real usage by new users:

My bounce rate has decreased about 7 percent per day. Since having the screencast up, the site’s sign up rate has doubled.

and second, he gives a glowing recommendation:

I would strongly suggest that anyone needing a screencast consider using Ian at ProCasts. He was very professional and provided great feedback and suggestions for making the screencast better. I really appreciate his dedication and effort in getting the AppBeacon screencast completed before Christmas.

A second great experience was whilst working with BrandWatch. Giles (CEO) wanted more first-time visitors to understand their product – BrandWatch is an on-line sentiment analysis service that lets you monitor your brand. It is a complex service and lacks a free account – without a sales tour you never get to see the app working. Understandably many first-time visitors bounced away.

We developed and deployed their frontpage screencast within a week (see their frontpage and our Examples page). Shortly after I posted the screencast to Vimeo for extra publicity – it was spotted by a reporter who, intrigued by what he saw, went on to write a piece about the service at CNET. Josh had never heard of BrandWatch before seeing the Vimeo post.

Typically each of our clients wants to convert more visitors into users of their service or tool, or they want to show users how to achieve specific actions (like closing an account) to decrease support requirements and give their users more confidence.

6. What are the resources that one should refer to, if one wants to learn screencasting?

First – read Michael Pick’s prior interview, he gives some great links.

My main advice would be to:

  1. record something
  2. get feedback
  3. experiment from the feedback

ShowMeDo has a friendly community if you’d like feedback about open-source based screencasts, alternatively you can always upload a video to a site like Vimeo and mail your friends for feedback.

TechSmith’s site has lots of information on how to use CamTasia, you might find that information translates to other applications. I’ve found myself forwarding these entries on to others in the past:

1. Oreilly.
2. Smashing Magazine.

7. Screencasting industry is pretty new, what are the issues you face and where do you see the screencasting industry going in next decade?

Currently screencasting is great for recording live usage of an application – it isn’t so great if you have slides or you want to use other presentation techniques (such as block-diagrams or animations). The tools are setup to focus on capturing the screen but they aren’t designed to offer a full range of multimedia techniques.

Often we use screencasts to teach first-time users about a new product or to show support material to existing users – combining animation and diagrams with screencasts is important. A part of ProCasts’ growth in the coming months will be to incorporate the skills of great graphic artists and animators into our offering.

The adoption of the new MP4 standard is a move towards giving us higher-definition screencasts at larger resolutions, this replaces the venerable FLV standard. Currently we’re seeing around 90% adoption of MP4-compatible Flash installs, I’d love to see this grow above 95% so we can switch to this new standard without losing viewers with older versions of Flash.

Screencasts are also very passive – they’re just like TV. Whilst it is possible to use SWF to integrate interactive elements, I feel this process needs a rethink. What happens if you have two types of user – one who is comfortable with the web, sign-ups and interaction whilst the other is new and afraid of what might happen if they click the wrong thing? How about if we could easily offer 1 screencast presentation that suits the needs of both?

The lack of multi-language support will have to improve. Currently we assume that the viewer knows our native language. What if they don’t understand spoken English so well? How do I (the screencaster) know which other languages are needed? How can the user choose a different sound-track?

Support for subtitles should definitely improve, I’m as guilty as others here in not providing subtitles in ProCasts production (not be design – the client often doesn’t want them!). Subtitles are great for accessibility and for viewers in an office who don’t have speakers, they really ought to come as standard.

I’d also like to see further support for webcams. Currently you ‘get what the webcam sees’ which might not give you a desirable background. How about if we could blue-screen the background and superimpose a different image – perhaps a logo or nice backdrop rather than just the wall of your office?

A very warm thanks to Ian!

I hope that you all must have enjoyed the detailed and answers with full of patience. This definitely shows Ian’s passion towards the screencasting. I really can’t expect any better answers than any of these. If Michael’s answers can be called tasty ice-cream then Ian’s answers are that wonderful cherry on the top!

And for all our readers! Happy screencasting & blogging!

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5 Responses so far | Have Your Say!

  1. Hello Mayank, thanks for asking me along to be interviewed, I appreciate the chance to talk to your readers and I always enjoy speaking.
    I should have mentioned – I'm always happy to offer a friendly critique of anyone's screencast if they'd like feedback, generally I do whatever I can to encourage more screencasts out in the wild. If you'd like a critique of your own screencasts, just drop me a line.
    There is another link where a chap asks 'I would like to show a product demo video (screen capture) on my homepage. … Can anyone share some advice from their experiences?' which contains a set of useful answers, that might help readers here too:
    http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=436523
    Regards,
    Ian.

  2. Wow. This one is a treasure. Read it full and hats off to Ian Ozsvald.
    I'm a strong fan of screencasting, and as such, this was a treat for me.

    Yes. Ian's powerful passion is evident from the sharp and focussed answers he gave. He loves what he does and is inspired the good spirit that he wants more of us to be there than, frighten us with insanely-high-requirements that intends to keep others from doing pretty screencasts.
    That is enough and more to depict his PROFESSIONALISM.

    Also, I appreciate and thanks Ian for offering voluntary feedback on screencasts. It's great for guys, to get the feedback from one, who is a GURU in that field. :)

    Thanks again.
    All the very best wished to you, Ian :)

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