Creating videos for software projects

TV studioBy Simon Hettrick, Policy and Communications Lead

Videos are one of the best ways of showcasing software, because it's much more enlightening to see software in action than simply read about it. Videos can attract new users by showing off your software's potential, and video tutorials help users to learn how to use your software. This guide gives a few tips on producing videos for software projects.

Why write this guide?

We wrote this guide after we had invested a lot of time in researching the best ways to create videos. By providing an overview with all the relevant information in one place, we hope to save other groups from duplicating this effort.

What to show?

The most interesting videos generally show people talking about the project or software with which they are involved. Not everyone's happy to appear on screen, but if you can persuade someone to present a video you are far more likely to produce something with which users will engage.

If you can't find someone who's keen to make their debut on video, a good second choice is to record a screen cast of the software in action. If users are to understand what is being shown, your screencast must be narrated. A voice over is the best choice here, although you can also overlay text.

Content

Planning content for a video is the same as planning content for any other form of media. Keep it simple and focus on the main points you want to express. Start with an introduction and overview, build the content and then conclude. Stay away from jargon, and make sure you understand your audience's level of knowledge (in other words, don't blind them with science, but don't patronise them either).

Duration

Hitchcock thought that "The length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder". You'd be lucky to keep a viewer interested for this long in a software video. Instead, a software demonstrations should be directly related to the endurance of the human attention span: not more than a few minutes, and certainly no longer than five minutes.

Software demonstrations should be short. A couple of minutes to show off your software and then end with links to further information. In this way, you can keep the video short and succinct, and anyone who is interested in the software can find out more if they want to. Tutorials are the exception to the few-minute rule, because they need to go into detail, and will inevitably end up lasting longer than a few minutes.

If you have a lot to say, rather than filming one long video, try separating the subject into different topics and creating a video for each topic. Most people are unlikely to sacrifice twenty minutes of their life to watching a video about software that they might not even turn out to find interesting. A five-minute video is a much smaller investment of time, so people are more likely to watch. (And, thanks to human psychology, it's easier to get someone to watch four videos each of five-minutes duration, than it is to get them to watch one twenty-minute video.)

There are practical considerations too. If you intend to host videos on YouTube, you must stick to their fifteen-minute time limit (and 2Gb size limit). If you want to post a video of longer than fifteen minutes, it must be cut into ten-minute long sections first.

Aspect ratio

At the Software Sustainability Institute, we use an aspect ratio of 4:3 as standard, because it fits easily onto all screens. However, the widescreen format is becoming the standard, so it is likely that this will soon change to the 16:9 widescreen aspect ratio.

Consider hosting videos on YouTube

YouTube provides access to tens of millions of potential viewers. For that reason alone, you should consider hosting your videos on YouTube. There are more benefits too: you don't need to worry about hosting the videos and the upload process guides you through providing all of the information that is needed to support the video.

It's a good idea to set up your own channel on YouTube, because this gives users an easy way to keep up to date with your latest videos. You can then choose to link back to your channel or embed your videos into your website.

Recommended formats and codecs

Codec

We generally use the h.264 codec, because it provides good quality compression and is widely available.

Formats

Since we use YouTube to store our videos, we stick to the YouTube recommended formats. Namely:

.WMV (Windows Media Video)
.3GP (cell phones)
.AVI (windows)
.MOV (mac)
.MP4 (ipod/psp)
.MPEG
.FLV (adobe flash)
.MKV

Software for video production

There are many different packages that can be used for video production, editing and conversion. The following packages are the ones used by the Software Sustainability Institute.

ffmpeg

The open-source ffmpeg tool is a fantastic video resource. It converts video formats quickly and without losing quality, converts images to video and provides an easy way to cut long videos to meet the YouTube duration limit. And it's free!

Useful ffmpeg commands

There are many ffmpeg guides and tutorials available, but here is a run down of some of the most useful commands:

  • Get video information

    ffmpeg -i [input_file].mov
     
  • Convert video (to a .mov in this example)

    ffmpeg -sameq -i [input_file].wmv [outputfile].mov
     
  • Cut video

    ffmpeg -sameq -ss [start_seconds] / -t [duration_seconds] -i [input_file] [outputfile]

Capturing screencasts

Wink

Wink is a free, easy-to-use, open-source package for producing flash videos (.swf) from a screen capture. The screen is captured as a series of images, which can be over-dubbed with audio narration or overlaid with text narration.

Note the flash files produced by Wink are a series of images and not a video. For viewing purposes, this makes no difference. However, it does mean that the .swf produced by Wink cannot be converted to other video formats using video conversion software.

Jing

Jing is another easy-to-use flash package with both a free and paid-for version. The free version limits recording time to five minutes.

Video editing

All video editing at the Institute uses an Mac and its proprietary software iMovie. Similar packages are available on Windows, such as Camtasia.