Screencasting as Art: Exploring Cinematic Techniques

Screencasting has a problem–it hasn’t evolved all that much over the 10 years or so since its inception. We still record the computer screen from a stationary position (dead centered) and we still present this flat, banal presentation to users sitting at their computers, which in and of itself presents problems (you’re looking at a computer screen on a computer screen–where does one end and the other begin).

It’s interesting to note that filmmaking itself started out on this same path by merely recording theatre productions from a stationary position in the audience. Viewers were presented with an an unmoving, uninteresting wide shot from a stationary position in the theatre. Fortunately for us, filmmakers quickly realized that this wasn’t all that interesting for viewers or themselves and thus began the art and science of cinematography.

cinematography – the art of making motion pictures, or as Blaine Brown says, “from the Greek roots meaning, ‘writing with motion.’”

In light of the parallels between early filmmaking and screencasting today I’ve begun to explore screencasting as an art form. How can we make screencasts more engaging? What can we learn from the masters of visual literacy, cinematographers, about pacing, depth, emotion and visual narrative? These sorts of questions are important to explore if we want people to engage with, learn from and, dare I say, enjoy our screencasts. That’s the mindset I think we need to establish for screencasting. We’re not just recording the screen, we’re telling a story and there is a well established historical record of the art and science behind motion picture narratives.

The screencast below, a tutorial on creating animated text-on-a-path in Adobe After Effects, is an early effort to explore this verdant terrain. After watching the video read on for an explanation of the some of the techniques used and the artistic intent behind them.


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Cartoon effect. This effect is one part pure stylization, one part psychological effect on presenter and one part impact on the viewer. The latter two are the more interesting concepts, so I’ll try to break them down a bit more.

First, we know that many people are very uncomfortable with the sound of their own voice or with seeing themselves on screen and yet one of the best opportunities they have for connecting with their audience is to directly engage them in front of the camera. The cartoon effect (one of many that should be experimented with) takes some of the edge off of the presenter and diminishes the realism of the shot which is strangely reassuring to the presenter. For instance, while looking at the original footage I was super focused on how fat my face was, how pasty white I looked and how the lighting was too intense. After applying the cartoon effect I felt more comfortable with “me” being on the screen. This isn’t unique to regular schmoes like me, A-list hollywood stars often insist on being shot with filters / lighting that softens the skin–a less realistic viewpoint they’re comfortable with putting on the screen.

It seems likely that the viewer will more quickly identify with the cartoon effect as well. In fact, I’m just echoing concepts Scott McCloud puts forward in Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. McCloud argues that cartoons are very basic depictions of people (lacking realism) that are much closer to the representation of self we carry around in our heads. Our ultra powerful brains immediately latch onto this representation allowing us to more closely identify with comic book characters. This engagement in turn makes the narrative more compelling. So the comic effect can help presenters be more comfortable and allows viewers to more closely identify with the presenter. Food for thought.

cartoon effect

Establishing shot. Usually a wide or medium shot (sometimes a sequence of wide, medium, tight) that sets the scene and provides context (i.e. this screencast is taking place on a mac laptop at my desk). Notice I used the establishing shot during the intro and immediately after the headshot. There’s continuity there–I’m making sure the viewer doesn’t have to think about where they are, or how they got there.

establishing shot

Window matching / door matching (a cheat technique that assists continuity) is also used. Observe that when we zoom-in to the computer on the desk the office establishing shot fades away, but the desktop remains framed around the edges with what looks like a macbook pro aluminum case. As we move from point of view to point of view this frame is visible if the edge of the desktop is visible. In film this technique would be called window matching or door matching. For example, establishing shots are often shot on location (a person at a window is shot outside from street level). However, the film will immediately cut to the interior of the building where the character is–this is typically shot on a sound stage and so they recreate the window or door (or enough to fake it) seen in the previous shot. This provides continuity–the viewer doesn’t have to step back from the narrative to try and figure out where they are. We’re doing the same thing with the pseudo aluminum edges–whenever the edge of the screen is in view we give the viewer subtle reassurance about where they are rather than just dropping off into black filmspace.

window matching / door matching

Lighting. First off, the ambient light of all the screen footage is dropped way down. This of course has some impact on the feel of the piece. We want the viewer to feel like they’re watching something special and so ambient light becomes important (restaurants having been using this technique for ages). It also allows the spot lighting to work just as it does in a darkened photo studio or at a theatre performance. Think about how the lighting at a theatre impacts your attention and immersion–we’re trying to replicate that feel. Spot lighting is then used to focus the attention of the viewer and provide stylistic shadows. On a side note look at how Hulu allows you to dim the lights for the entire site–yep details like this matter…a lot.

spot lighting and camera perspective

Depth. Camera angle, framing and lighting are the key elements here. Much of the art and responsibility of the filmmaker is in trying to create, or recreate, 3d in a 2d space. We need to create something that’s visually interesting if we’re going to hold our viewers attention. If its a flat representation of a computer desktop that’s being watched on a computer desktop there’s nothing there to pull me into the narrative. Remember, we’re trying to help the viewer engage with the story which means we need to give their brains and eyes a reason to pay attention (there’s actually quite a bit of learning theory behind this concept). All this leads us to an understanding that we need to add depth. That’s why perspective is used on every single shot in this piece. Combine perspective (camera angle) with lighting and you start feeling like you’re not just looking at a flat 2d screen–you’re looking at something with depth, something interesting, something that makes your brain sit up and pay attention.

Framing (what is visible in the viewfinder and therefore the screen). This contributes to depth especially when combined with changing camera point of view. In fact, using wide, medium and tight shots has long been one of the most important narrative tools in the filmmaker’s bag of tricks. What you see in the frame can give you context, tell you what’s important and set the emotional tone. It’s normal to see today’s filmmakers change camera point of view and framing every three to five seconds unless there’s a very good reason to stay longer with a shot (a compelling narrative, a climax or emotional scene). Changing point of view and altering framing creates visual interest and can have dramatic impact on the pacing of the story (something hugely important for screencasts). It prevents us from getting bored and moving our eyes and brains on to something that’s more interesting.

Close-ups have a huge impact as well. We aren’t used to seeing the person (substitute application, window or screen area) this close–it’s a powerful signal to the brain that it should sit up and pay attention. Hitchcock had a rule of thumb that the objects on the screen should fill the frame relative to their importance to the narrative. This is a pretty good guideline for how wide or how close you should be on a particular element (much of the time you just want to be medium to tight). This goes hand in hand with the old photographers saw that for most shots you should, “first get close, then move closer still.” Our brains pay attention to close-ups and are remarkably good at sewing together context if medium or wide shots are thrown in occasionally.

close-up

Cutaways. In this piece, keyboard shortcuts are cutaway shots. You might think this would break continuity, but the shots actually show the action being described on screen and often the keys being pressed are synched to the audio recording of the keyboard. It takes less time to cutaway to the actual keyboard shortcut action than it would to display a message that the viewer would need to read and interpret. The very act of forcing the viewer to read a keyboard shortcut takes them out of the visual narrative whereas showing them the action via cutaway is an effective cinematic storytelling technique. In this case the first cutaway is actually poorly executed (the camera is moving enough to distract you), but the subsequent cutaways were filmed on a jerry-rigged tripod keeping the shot still (that’s what allowed us to move in and out of the cutaway very effectively).

cutaway

Bumpers. We’ve become culturally conditioned to seeing cool titling and motion graphics on the front and back of video. The point is, bumpers suck unless they are, again, visually interesting or entertaining. There’s a huge opportunity to really work on creating cool bumpers viewers will watch that build your personal or corporate brand.

Whew, you made it through this deep dive into screencasting as art. I hope you enjoyed it, and maybe even learned a little something. If you have feedback, comments, insights or artistic quibbles please feel free to rage away in the comments.

Retouching Photos With Lightroom’s Brush Tool

Lightroom’s brush is an awesome tool that can be used to add stunning visual effects to your composition. Use the brush tool to blur out skyscapes, enrich or change color tones of individual objects, overcome backlighting and much more. The video below explores several techniques for changing the exposure, softening the skin and altering the color characteristics of a single person.

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