Video tools for cheap introduction to movies and screencasting

The tools for creating movies and screencasts have changed, and are changing, quite significantly. The time-frame for looking for significant changes in the market place is a couple of months at most; if you last looked at this area a year ago, then you need to get on it and see what else is out there.

In the following I provide a quick overview of a few of the top tools for capturing screencasts (from your Mac or iPad or even from a Web-based tool) and then assembling these into published movies. However, before we get started, I need to define a few terms that I use in specific ways:

movie
This is the fully-assembled final product that we all watch on YouTube (or similar site). The video going into the movie can come from screen captures, webcams, or digicams. It can also contain movies, subtitles, credits, and transitions between scenes.
screencast
This is a video that captures what is happening on a screen, and usually a narrator is describing the action.
webcam
This is the camera either directly attached to or built in to your computer. It captures the by-now iconic view of a “talking head” looking directly into the computer.
digicam
This is a video camera or point-and-shoot camera that can also capture videos away from the computer and then be downloaded into the computer for processing in the form of an MP4 or AVI file.

Web-based screencast tools

Screencast-O-Matic

Screencast-O-Matic

Screencast-O-Matic is a tool that you can start using on either a Mac or Windows machine without installing any software. You can use it for free in order to get an idea of its capabilities. Access to all of its capabilities costs only $15!! It can use video from either a screencast or a webcam but I didn’t see how to import video from a digicam.

With the free version you can record up to 15 minute videos from your webcam and screen capture, upload them to YouTube, and publish to MP4 and AVI (among others). For the additional fee, you gain access to some editing tools, a very nifty screenshot tool (I didn’t know that I needed this either until I looked at this video), plus the watermark gets removed from the videos. (Check their homepage for a more complete description of the features of this software.)

This is an amazingly full-featured tool given its ease of use and the ease with which you can begin to use it. With this tool, students and professors can easily experiment with publishing and creating videos of all types. You would be doing yourself a disservice if you didn’t at least give it a try.

Screenr

Screenr

Screenr is another Web-based tool that works on either a Mac or Windows machine. Just like Screencast-O-Matic, it uses a Java program to control the recording process. However, this tool is quite different from SOM in that it is quite limited in its functionality. It allows the user to create a screencast (in one cut), attach a text description, and then publish it. There aren’t any editing tools, nor is there any way to integrate video from a webcam or digicam.

Think of this tool as a quick-and-dirty, I-need-to-show-this-stuff-on-my-screen kind of program. In this role, it excels. It could not be easier or quicker than this Web-based tool: go to the Web site, click on the button, record what you want, stop the recording, and then publish the result. No extraneous things to think about. This is a great tool if that’s all you need.

Screencast tools for a Mac

QuickTime Player

The free QuickTime Player now has the ability to record a movie, audio, and a screencast. (See this article about this last feature.) It is actually quite simple to use this program. Go to the File menu and choose either New Movie Recording, New Audio Recording, or New Screen Recording. This then creates a media file that can be imported into other programs or published on YouTube as appropriate. For Mac users this is the natural place to start with their multimedia explorations.

Others

If I were going to cover all screencasting and movie-making tools, then I would definitely include both ScreenFlow and Camtasia for Mac (or Windows). These are powerful tools with lots of functions and capabilities. However, since I am focusing on the inexpensive end of the spectrum, I will leave these for another day. But if you feel you have outgrown the programs I mention here, or if you need some features that aren’t provided by them, then these are great programs to look at next.

Screencast tools for iPad

Screencasting on the iPad results in a different type of video. Laptop or desktop-based screencasting is focused on showing what is happening on the screen — usually a PowerPoint presentation, a Web page, or even the operations of some other program. On the other hand, iPad screencasting is focused on capturing written input on the iPad along with recordings of direct manipulation.

A tool that is essentially a mix of the two types of screencasting tools is Doceri. It virtually connects an iPad to a computer screen, thereby allowing direct input and writing via the iPad interface but on the computer screen itself. I like this tool so much that I made a video demonstration of it.

Movie-making tools

iMovie

iMovie is the reference moviemaking tool for the Mac. It is the tool for integrating video and audio from multiple sources into a single video which can then be published in all types of formats (from DVD to YouTube).

Animoto

Animoto

Animoto is a tool for creating a slideshow of photos set to music. It is quite like the slideshows produced by iPhoto (if you are familiar with that product) with the addition of text that the user can add throughout. The resulting video can be shared in all the usual ways, DVD to YouTube.

Qwiki

Qwiki

Qwiki is the most intriguing tool that I discuss in this post. It produces very slick, polished videos that are a combination of videos, photos, and other information. They have demo on their Web site. As they say on their Web site:

Each “Qwiki” is easily created through a browser — enabling users to combine pictures, videos, infographics and their own voice into a beautiful, interactive presentation describing anything.

And it’s free! You owe it to yourself to check it out and see if you can take advantage of what it has to offer.

YouTube

YouTube

YouTube is the all encompassing video publishing site; however, it also has the ability to capture and edit video. If you go to your video upload page, tools are available to record video off of a webcam (as well as, of course, upload videos off your digicam). YouTube now also offers tools to edit your video after you have uploaded it (including trimming and shake removal); here is one video among many describing the site’s capabilities.

Recommendations

So many choices are available to you now for your video and screencasting needs. Things could change soon, and will. Some of these free or cheap programs could become more expensive or disappear. Others may survive, but it’s unclear which ones are which. Your best bet is to retain familiarity with a variety of tools, and don’t become too dependent on one of them. Be flexible!

In the meantime, you have to do something. If you are beginning to explore video, I recommend that you start with Screencast-O-Matic. It is cheap and you can begin to get an idea of what the process is like. As your demands increase, you should move on to using QuickTime (for free) to import video off your digicam; you might also compare its screencasting tools with those of SOM.

Now you might also have some slightly different needs. You might want to explore the iPad-based screencasting tools; it gives much more of a sense of demonstrating some task to a viewer. If you want to present photo-based information, Animoto provides a tool for creating polished slideshows.

As for assembling the final movie, YouTube is turning into a reasonable alternative for handling simple movie assembly. However, for Mac users you really can’t beat iMovie for a moderately advanced movie production studio. (I’m not even going to mention Final Cut Pro.) Finally, Qwiki provides a great tool for possibly taking the production values of your videos to a completely new level.

The most important recommenation: do something. Get in the game, or be left behind.

Trials of a new video producer

Yes, I am interested in technology, and I have quite a (long) history with it. Yes, I am interested in the use of technology in education, and I also have quite a (okay, again, long) history with it. And, yes, I am going to teach (the enrollment gods be willing) a class on living and learning digitally to business students that will be mostly online and use lots of video.

But I have not ever actually published a video using iMovie. Oops. That might be what’s referred to as a “hole in the resume.”

It is true that I have previously created a video promoting an earlier version of this class and created another series of videos explaining how to edit wikidot pages (with over 13k views! I had no idea). However, both of these were created (in ways that I only vaguely recall) with software that was cheap, difficult to use, and not that robust. I’m not even sure that I could get it to work again.

Given my plans to teach this class in this manner, I recently decided to actually test whether or not I could put together a video. I know there are other professors out there who are intrigued by where technology is going but are uncertain about the move from classroom to video, so I figured I would document these early, tentative steps. I know how to speak in front of a classroom, no problem. Delivering content over video is more complicated. There’s the content itself (essentially the same, though structured differently), then the delivery of the content into a camera (very, very different), and the assembling and publishing of that digital content. I wanted to see for myself, before I got too far into this process, just how hard or easy it is to complete that last step. If that step is too hard to take, then I would have to change my whole concept of what it means to deliver this type of class.

The following two videos are the result of that first test. The first simply tests my abilities to use iMovie to create a movie, and the second shows the current state of my production facility and the hardware I use.

Initial tests of hardware and software

This is really raw video. (Please don’t judge! I’m not performing or using my stage voice or anything. This is “testing, testing, 1, 2, 3.”) This video is the result of using my MacBook Pro, an iSight camera (since my laptop’s camera stopped working a couple of years ago), iMovie, a microphone, and a document camera. (More on all of this below.) Here is the movie; my comments follow.

  • I published this in “Large” format (808×540), suitable for Apple TV, computer, and YouTube. I will have to think about this as I go along. For an iPhone, it recommends publishing at 480×320; however, some loss of detail would certainly occur.
  • It is simply a matter of checking a box to have iMovie automatically insert a standard transition between scenes. I used “cross-fade.”
  • Inserting a title (at the beginning), subtitles (before scenes), and credits (if needed at the end) couldn’t be easier. Drag and drop, then type. Done.
  • At 0:05 when I first appear on screen: so many things to see here.
    • I have a ceiling light to the left of my head; I am going to have to change the alignment of the camera to get that to go away.
    • The lighting on my face is a bit dark, and shadows are being cast across my face. (Later, I will address this.) It is hard to get this right because I have a light directly above my desk (a different ceiling light) and none in front of me. Who has a light shining on his face (but only direct light!)? Well, certainly, not me. What I had to do (for this shot; I do more later) was put a desk lamp next to the camera and behind the laptop and point it away from me so that it reflected off the wall.
    • So far I like working with this microphone. It is comfortable, the ear microphone is sufficient, and the sound pick-up seems acceptable. I wanted to get a microphone because I plan on lecturing to a camera in front of a whiteboard and I figured I would need one at that time since I would be turning my head periodically away from the camera. (I will test this setup soon.)
  • At 0:21 the first subtitle screen appears. (I’m sure this has another name.) Again, this was super simple.
  • 0:26: I recorded a second short clip in order to test how to handle the insertion of a second video into the movie and how transitions work. I need to remember to have at least 1 second of me staring at the camera at the beginning and ending of a clip in order to provide time for the transition to work effectively. The transitions take about 0.5 seconds off the end of a clip and blend it into the beginning of the next clip so you don’t want to be doing or saying anything at that time.
  • 0:37: I wanted to record a clip and then insert a voice-over to see how it works. I recorded the whole clip, and then I went back and used iMovie to record the audio for the middle segment. The audio for the voice-over came out different than it did for the rest of the segment. I have no idea why because I used the same hardware and software for everything. I still have to investigate this.
  • At 0:53 the doc-cam makes its appearance. This was kinda tricky to setup — actually, not really to setup but more specifically to understand how to setup — but it is easy to use.
    • I will have to use a more bold-faced pen if I am going to write on paper.
    • Though the doc-cam has an audio pick-up, I set up the software to use the head mic that I had on.
    • The doc-cam appears to be much more comfortable working in a Windows environment than a Mac environment. The software that is made available for the Mac is explicitly in beta (and it should be). It works, but it has some glitches. The major one is that it records the video in one orientation, with the top of the video being away from the base and the bottom of the video being closest to the base. The software has a button that is supposed to rotate the video, but it doesn’t really work. This ends up not being a problem (at least as far as I can tell for now) because, after the movie is saved, QuickTime can rotate the movie into the correct orientation.
    • I was hoping to use this camera during live feeds, but it doesn’t appear to be a standard video feed. I can’t get my Mac to choose it as a standard video input so I can’t switch to it — it only works when it is being controlled by its own software. I will have to continue investigating this, and possibly look for another product if I can’t figure it out.
    • Regardless of all the above, I think the image is pretty clear and doesn’t have a lot of the ghosting and blurring that older, school-supplied doc-cams seem to always have. I definitely would feel comfortable using this hardware in a pre-recorded segment.
  • 1:14: I wanted to test if the selection of audio input made a difference in the recording. I definitely like the change in audio quality from the first segment (computer microphone) to this one (Bluetooth mic).

All in all, it was a successful test. I still have some issues to investigate, but it all seemed doable. Now I just have to work on my on-camera personality.

Production facility

This video shows my “production facility” (aka my basement). The video itself is somewhat of a technical test as well, since it is a combination of video off my iSight and off my first-generation Flip. (I recently was saddened to discover that my Flip HD has died after barely being used. Got a new battery and it didn’t revive it. That’s really too bad since I haven’t seen anything that approaches its combination of cost, simplicity, and quality output. I am going to have to keep my eyes open.)

Here’s a list of what I discuss in the video:

Apple MacBook Pro
This is a 15″ early 2008 model with 4GB of RAM running Lion 10.7.4. The main problem is that it is nearly out of hard disk space (as well as the aforementioned camera issue). I will be replacing this soon. For now it serves it purpose quite well.
iMovie
I was fairly amazed by how easy it was to get started with this. I watched their introductory video, but that’s the extent of the training that I underwent before I did any of this. I’m sure that Final Cut Pro X is a wonderful piece of software, and I’m also guessing that I will start pining for it at some time; however, for now I can see being satisfied with iMovie and its focus on ease-of-use.
Plantronics Voyager 520
This is a noise-canceling, Bluetooth, over-the-ear microphone. It is comfortable and seems to provide adequate sound quality. I will have to monitor this over time but this looks like it was a good investment.
Luna Interactive Projection Camera
As I said before, the Mac software that comes with this is a bit iffy, but the hardware seems solid. I especially like the quality of the video that it produces. The only thing that bothers me is the difficulty using it in a streaming video.
Flip Video (original)
This is a solid, reliable piece of hardware. As long as it doesn’t fail (seem Flip HD experience above), I expect that I will use this for a while. I next need to test it out in a room with me in front of a whiteboard. This will have to wait for future explorations (and associated posts).

Conclusion

I’m a long-time Mac user beginning with the Mac SE/30 in 1989 all the way through my current iPad, MacBook Pro, and MacPro 12-core tower with 16GB of RAM (I run lots of computation-intensive simulations in my research) so I am comfortable working in that environment. However, “working in that environment” and “producing videos” are two completely different things.

I now have the confidence to invest a bit more time in learning specific techniques and approaches to teaching on video. I didn’t feel the urge to investigate these before because I didn’t have the confidence that I would be able to carry it off. Now I do.

I hope these videos and this blog post gives you confidence that you could get into the video production business, at least on a part-time basis. Do you have any help for me on the next steps on my learning journey? Let me know if you do.