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Um, ah, Feck, Feck, Feck - First adventures in screencasting

  • Author: Matthew Jackson
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screencasting to oblivion

I’m a big believer in using online video tutorials to learn new skills. I’ve learnt tons of cool stuff about Photoshop and Illustrator, for free, by simply watching a geek-pro work the programs and describe the process at the same time.  I love those guys and gals, they’re awesome.

For me, this method of learning works better than a Foxconn slave in an Iphone4 factory.

In the spirit of dragging this post out for as long as possible, I’ll start at the beginning of my tale: We recently completed a web development project for a client who’s located pretty far outside of Johannesburg. Normally, we’d jump at the prospect of getting out of the office for a day to conduct a little hands-on training with the Expression Engine Content Management System. Unfortunately, our production schedule is getting way out of hand. This time round, we really couldn’t afford to leave the office for an entire day.

Now, Greg and I are pretty serious people; we’ve buggered about on the internet for a couple of years and we’ve watched our fair share of video tutorials. So, making a screencast for our client seemed like the obvious solution – it was, but not without its birthing pains; think of a delivery after an immaculate conception. Got it? Well this sucker breached.

Our first stumbling block was screencasting software, with a little help from Google and a lot of help from Smashing Magazine we managed to find a program called CamStudio. Unlike a lot of other free programs, this little opensource gem did exactly what it said on the box. It recorded screen activity, plus audio, and even came pre-packaged with a ton of too-cheesy-to-use text boxes for those too-difficult-to-articulate- in-one-take phrases. At 1333kb you can’t go wrong. The program is basic, but the quality is spot-on.

As it turns out, free software was the least of my concerns. CamStudio took all of one minute to install and thirty seconds to learn how to operate. Making a ten minute training video took a little over four hours. Don’t laugh, it was my first attempt.

I’m not sure if you’ve ever heard your voice recorded. Before this godforsaken screencast, my only recorded experience of my own eloquence was restricted to a couple of Christmas videos shot in 1989 – I hated those results too. As it turns out, I have no rhythm, no cadence and no natural metre either. Reality dawned after my first Um laden take.

Dum, dum, Dummmmmmm!

So here’s the first secret about screencasting: Your voice sucks; if it didn’t, you’d be a voice artist. You’re obviously not; you’re reading my blog about screencasting. Keep going; it gets worse.
In a misguided attempt to disguise my abhorrent voice, I made my first real n00b mistake; I slipped into the bastard child voice of a tele-salesman and a cult preacher. Close your eyes for a second: imagine it with me: “Welcome to the Expression Engine Control Panel. From here you’ll be able to manage, edit and, um, publish your content with the greatest of ease. Over here we have the Um, um… Um. Oh Feck! I’ve fluffed it. Is this program even working? Feck! Feck! Feck! Greg, what the hell? This is harder than it looks.”

Note: Feck is the sound a French chicken makes while it lays an egg.

Right, this brings me to the next secret about screencasting: you need a script. Surprised? No? Well I was. In all of the screencasts I’ve ever watched, valiant souls have narrated a process with the greatest of ease. I now realise that a lot of these guys manage to achieve this amazing feat after writing a script and working the magical wonders found in an editing program. Who would have guessed?

Once I realised that I needed a script, I fired up MS Word, kicked Greg in the shins - to get his full attention - and developed a loose storyboard and script for my first cinematic undertaking. As far as I was concerned, I’d just developed some award winning stuff. I’d be just like Sylvester Stallone in Rocky VI, but with a less surly accent: I’d written it, I’d direct it, I’d star in it – but I’d leave the editing to Greg.

As you can imagine, my screencast didn’t go as smoothly as expected. It took ages for me to say anything coherently and I sounded like a douche throughout the process. Eventually, we managed to get a passable product together. In my mind the screencast needed some fancy transitions, possibly some hard drum N bass in the intro and a credit screen covered in my name. Greg didn’t agree. He also vetoed the dancing girls, the monster trucks and three scenes stolen straight from Independence Day. What a pity; it would have been awesome.

To cut a long story where it needs to be cut, our client was pleased with the result. We managed to get a screencast together which demonstrated the power of our customised workflow and the Expression Engine Control Panel. But, I’ll say this, screencasting is harder than it looks. It looks pretty easy online.

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