Vodcast video tips

Recently, I published Playlist’s first vodcast (Video-on-Demand broadcast) and since its publication I’ve received enough “How did you do such and such?” messages that I thought I’d offer a few tips for creating these kinds of instructional videos.

Lighting

Images, moving or otherwise, are about light, and getting the right kind of light in your videos is of paramount importance. You can offer the greatest performance on earth but if it’s poorly lit, your video is going to look funky.

Ideally, shoot your video outside on an overcast day. Bright sunlight tends to wash out what you’re shooting and its harshness isn’t terribly flattering for your subjects. Light evens out on cloudy days. If you can’t find a cooperative cloud, try shooting early in the morning or later in the afternoon when the light is less harsh (but watch out for lighting conditions that change rapidly as the sun rises in the sky or begins to set).

It’s not a bad idea to seek out locations that you can depend on. For example, when I shoot these kinds of videos—either for a vodcast like this or for the Breen’s Bungalow segments I put together for Macworld’s CD—you’ll often find me sitting on an outside wooden staircase. I choose this location because it works reasonably well regardless of what the weather is like. It’s always in shadow, but there’s enough light reflected from the paving stones below the stairs to provide enough illumination for the scene (though on really bright days my glasses pick up some of that reflection). Also, stairs like this provide a sense of depth, thus making the subject sitting on them (me) pop out of the frame a bit.

Finally, it’s a reasonably quiet and secluded location. I live near a farm so pick up the occasional rooster crow or peacock cry (hey, it’s California), but it’s far enough from the road that you don’t hear traffic. And seclusion is important because, like most people, I’m a little self-conscious with a camera in my face. Being off by my lonesome lets me relax a bit more than I would if I was shooting in a crowd.

Audio

I use a cheap Radio Shack lapel microphone and, if you’re doing this kind of talking-head work, you should too. It’s reasonably unobtrusive and provides sound far better than what you’d get from your camcorder’s built-in microphone.

Screen captures

In my instructional videos I include both still and motion captures of items on my computer’s screen. For Mac captures I’ve found no better tool than Ambrosia Software’s amazing SnapzPro X 2 ($29 for still-only captures and $69 for the version that also captures motion as QuickTime videos). Excuse me for getting all drooly over SnapzPro X, but there simply isn’t a better tool for the job. If you do this kind of work, SnapzPro is an absolute necessity.

I scale up captured stills to 400% to be sure that they fill an iMovie frame (the program I use to assemble the videos). At 100% scaling, captures of small items won’t fill the frame.

I’ve also configured Snapz so that I’m prompted to name the capture immediately after I grab it. When I do, I number the captures in the order they’ll appear in iMovie—01. This Icon, 02. That Icon, 03. Picture of the Dog, etc. Using this scheme I can then sort them in a window’s List view so they appear in sequence, drag them into iMovie, and they’ll appear in the clip bin in that order. Select them all in the bin and drag them to iMovie’s timeline and, again, they appear in order. This is a huge timesaver.

Compression

I pull the finished iMovie into Autodesk’s Cleaner 6, where I compress it using a modified version of Cleaner’s SV3NTSC CD&DVD High setting. This is a setting that uses the Sorenson 3 professional codec, manually crops the top two rows of pixels to get rid of the artifacts that normally appear there, produces a frame size of 320 x 240, and outputs audio at 16-bit, 44.1kHz, mono using the IMA 4:1 encoder.

I’m sure others will pipe in with compression settings that they prefer—these just happen to be the ones I’ve used forever that produce the results I like. But I’m open to suggestion.

I could easily produce a more compact file by reducing the frame size to 240 x 180 and being more severe with Sorenson’s settings. I could also slim things down a bit by using quick-cut transitions rather than fades and dissolves, which require more data to render.

Details on distributing the vodcast can be found in my Playlist piece, How to Create a Vodcast.

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