Friday, May 14, 2010

Review of ¨The screencasting handbook¨ by Ian Ozsvald

Well suffice is to say, there is no better person to learn from than from an expert on the field. Even if someone has read dozens of books on screencasting, that does not make him/her an expert. What makes him/her an expert is practice. That´s what Ian Ozsvald has to offer to us with the first edition of The Screencasting handbook.


The book could have been enriched graphically by contracting a professional book layout artist. The text in the same font with no particular formatting looks dull. Some screen-shots are thrown at us randomly to show some examples. Perhaps in future releases we can have a professional look to the book. But in my opinion, that is not what people interested in screencasting are craving for.


The content is precious information that actually matters for screensters, whether professionals or beginners, there is something for everyone. Ian starts with how he got to be a screencaster, his other occupations and his start in the professional screencasting business, with his company . There is a very messy part where Ian just starts gathering screencasts usage one paragraph after the other, some are put in to alot of inspection, some are not (i.e. machinima). That particular section could be improved by actually associating that information with the usefulness of the screencasting process (having google videos as an example for later chapters, or ideas of machinima or video editing that could enhance the screencast, or perhaps not even mention machinima, as it seems pervasively random).

The section of ¨making a screencast in 30 minutes¨ is the nutshell of the book. Despite an unnecessary publicity to a shoe company refering to the famous frase ¨just do it¨, this section really shines because one of the most daunting tasks in any new subject that´s being learnt is starting your first exercise. Ian evokes confidence by providing a succint and effective tutorial using Jing. Ian focuses on simplicity and shortness of the length of the video. Practice runs are recommended by Ian, as well as a repeatable environment (few or no changes to the recorded environment from screencast to screencast). Ian recommends not worrying too much on the `ums` `ahs` and little audio glitches as long as one teaches something and gets to the point in less than 5 minutes (That´s the Jing recording length limit). One is then welcomed to the screencasting handbook google group.

One is the led to an yet-to-be-tidy list of examples that Ian and students of Brighton University made using Jing.

¨Making a screencast in two hours¨ is what one would expect if one would ask for a thorough tutorial on screencasting from zero knowledge. It goes as far as telling you the specifics of OS and recording/editing/miscelaneous tools usage. ScreenFlow BBflashback, CamtasiaStudio, Camstudio, they are all covered here, and in more detail in later chapters. The aim here is to guide intermediate screencasters into creating more compelling screencasts, by editing some video, audio and taking care of the check-list (voice control, rehearsal of the voice over without recording, removing background noise, avoiding common distribution pitfalls, etc.)

¨Making a screencst in 1-2 days¨ is even more thorough, covering topics like associating with an animator, voice over artist and scriptwriter. Creating your own storyboards and presenting drafts of the screencast to your customer. Music is also covered in a more succinct way, it points to sites where to buy songs for a reasonable price ($5-$20), or for free, and how to adjust the songs in the respective video editors, with tips and tricks using tools like the envelope on the free tool Audacity(which adjusts the volume of the sound track depending on input of other tracks, i.e. the voice over track. In professional audio terms, it is called side-chaining). Ian shows some screenshots and provides links for the job requests. What´s more valuable in my opinion, you can´t find elsewhere, is his insight on how to deal with the workflow regarding tight deadlines and the customer´s needs. After all, if you don´t emphasize on the customer needs, he/she will not have a clue of what the screencast(s) may help with regarding their product, the screencast, therefore, will serve no purpose. Ian is insightful as to how to get things done from a professional screencaster perspective.
Tools are still being improved so Ian also expresses his desire for improvements over utilities, like having auto-zooming capabilities enhanced in Camtasia studio7, ScreenFlow´s editing limitations, camstudio´s lack of official support, etc.

The highlight of this section is the rubber ducking technique. Pretend you are explaining the problem you are having to a rubber duck before disturbing a sentient being. This Allows for better problem solving and less time waste in a team.

The video and audio formats are covered in ¨Export - which file formats do we need?¨. It is a review of the codecs and containers mainly used for web-based streaming, but other codecs and containers are covered as well. What is more interesting is that he goes as far as detailing the recommended output options (resolution, codec/container selection, length, bitrate, frequency, etc.) depending on the distributed medium (ShowMeDo, Vimeo, YouTube, Bliptv, DVD, etc.) , with particular highlight on Youtube HD, and the tools used for producing the screencast(Camstudio, BBFlashBack, RecordMyDesktop, etc.)

¨Distributing your screencast¨ deals with the specific websites, or FTP services for distributing videos, or video series. It talks about ShowMeDo(educational), BlipTV(some revenue from advertisers), Vimeo(Big, high quality non-comercial videos), and YouTube(the most famous and highest bandwidth capabilities). It gives a mention to the honorabe HTML video flag that supports .ogg files (and possibly h.264). And talks a bit about managing your own FTP hosting and Amazon´s S3 CloudFront for using as a delivery network(paying for as much bandwidth as your users utilize).

¨Common Workflows¨ leads the reader to workflows that work most commonly, there is also a link to the google group for the Handbook, discussing this subject (best personal workflows).

¨Screencasting Software¨ delves more deeply into the tools, and gives pros and cons. I´d say is a very useful section if what you are looking for is a tool to start screencasting, or that applies better for your needs. Heck even Adobe Captivate is given a mention. Which, of all the screen recorders, this one integrates better to other tools like the video editor Adobe Premier, but for a scary price and learning curve. This section is divided on Operating System (Windows, Mac, Linux).

¨Editing software¨ deals with programs like Adobe Premier, Camstudio, Sony Vegas, and the free open source tools Blender and VirtualDub.

¨Screencasting tools¨, is a series of miscellaneous tools, that to my surprise, are extremely helpful in creating screencasts. From mouse position indicators, to zoom effects, to Windows ´sizers´. All covered in a small chapter enough to know about these very useful tools, especially in conjunction with the other video editing and recording tools. Audio tools like the Levator and Audacity are given a mention. Video players, like the VLC, and Mplayer are recommended by Ian. Gspot for spotting what codec/container a specific video uses.

¨Microphones¨ deals with the most important aspect of audio... the microphone and the quality/price ratio. Ian classifies a series of microphones from the Google Handbook Group users, and reviews them enough so that the reader has a better idea if it is the microphone for the current need. Although it really comes down to "The more expensive the better". I really lament the fact that the Samson Go did not get included despite the multiple praises all over the internet. Microphone techniques are also included, like avoiding lip smack, sibilants, plosives, electrical/nature´s noise, etc. Ian even provides a link to one of the best screencasts ever created... my screencast(Go fiiiiiiigure) on pop filters, hosted on ShowMeDo.

¨Extra Hardware¨ deals with web-cam, mouse, trackball, and copy-holder usage. Pretty standard.

¨How screencasting works¨ is a succinct explanation of how screencasting software captures images.

The rest is just a series of reference material for future use.


At a very reasonable price, $36 is the price of any small specialized and technical book found on any bookstore. But with the advantage that e-books get updated much more easily. And we all know technology changes dramatically one month to the other.


The distribution system is the best for the type of contents... technical/educational subjects. E-books are better, because they can be more easily upgraded when the need comes, when Camstudio 7 will be Camstudio 8 and it will throw fireworks and blow whistles at the end of every screencast with the voice of a Leprechaun shouting, "thank you for watching our demo/educational video have a nice day! Hurray!", we will not want another 1/2 edition for these types of changes. OK, I need to get some sleep.


As biased as this review may seem(after all, I am listed in the acknowledgements section), this is probably the best book there is about screencasting. Even with all its glitches, The Screencasting Handbook delivers what it promises... pragmatic advice from an experienced screencaster, covering tools, distribution and techniques that will doubtly be available elsewhere.


Adward said...

I've heard of that book and thanks for the review in details. I've one screen recorder called DemoCreator and wonder if Ian Ozsvald mentioned it in his book.

Mmm... I will buy this book because I'm also a screencast addict who want to make great screencast.

Gabriel Hasbun-Comandari said...

Thanks for the comment. DemoCreator is not mentioned in the book, although I´ll mention it to Ian Oszvald about it for the next edition.