October 2018
Text by Anton Bollen

Image: believeinme33/123rf.com

Anton Bollen is a customer & marketing strategist working for Tech≠Smith Corp. Since 2004, he has been occupied with the topic of using video as a format for information and learning. As well as producing videos, he also assists the preparation of eLearning concepts and video tutorials. His main focus is on making processes more efficient through visual communication. 


a.bollen[at]techsmith.com 


www.techsmith.de


 

This article is a translation from a German article that was first published in the professional magazine 'technische Kommunikation'. For more information visit https://technischekommunikation.info.

Do you know how videos are made?

Many technical communicators also need to create a video or two for their target groups. But it is especially beginners who get overwhelmed quickly with the planning, recording, editing and production of a video. Luckily, there are tips to make things easier.

In 1896, Boleslav Matuszewski, a Polish businessman and photographer, began filming surgical procedures in hospitals. Seeing the recordings, doctors could identify their own mistakes and improve procedures, and the films were used for teaching and research purposes. Matuszewski's work is one of the first known examples of using moving images for documentation and learning purposes. 

More than 120 years later, video has become an important element of communication, even technical documentation. And rightly so: Complex instructions and technical procedures are easier to understand when they are presented visually. This is shown by a recent scientific study. In one experiment of the study, employees were given tasks. Sixty-seven percent of the study participants could perform the tasks more effectively when the tasks were prepared using screenshots, screencasts or videos as opposed to plain text.

The triumph of smartphones and tablets has spurred this trend once again. Consumption of videos has become independent of time and place, and the inhibition threshold for recording a video has dropped. This trend is also reflected in the expectations and behavior of users: Due to the generally increased consumption of videos and the on-demand availability of countless explanatory clips on video platforms, more and more users have started expecting audio-visual content even in a professional environment.

Many companies have now discovered the use of videos for themselves and replace or supplement their technical documentation with a corresponding offer. However, a professional media team is often reserved for the internal marketing department. Therefore, the task of making videos for documentation purposes is usually directly entrusted to technical communicators. "Let's make videos too," is a sentence that many in the industry might have heard. But how does the making of such videos succeed with limited experience, time and resources?

Good planning is half the battle

Meticulous preparation is essential for the success of a video and efficient workflow on the day of the shoot. Since there is often only one day for shooting and additional recording dates cost time and money, planning is essential to execute the project within the scheduled timeframe. Preparation involves several aspects and should include determining the purpose and basic concept of the video, writing a script or storyboard, determining the thematic content and, if possible, evaluating the premises and the equipment needed. Video documentation of haptic processes on a hardware (live action) is also more complicated than the documentation of a pure software (screencast). 

The first step is to determine the purpose and type of video and to determine which process has to be documented and to what extent. The target group that will finally use the video should be taken into account right from the beginning: What previous knowledge and competencies do they possess, and what is expected in terms of content and style?

It should be noted that in technical documentation, big video effects are secondary – the main objective of videos here is to show a process efficiently and accurately. A practical example: Michael Torborg, technical communicator from Kiel, has been producing video documentations for three years at the request of his clients. The target group usually comprises the clients’ technicians who need guidance on how to maintain complex devices and systems. In addition to screencasts, Torborg and his colleagues use live action to authentically reproduce the operation of a device. A combination of both film types has proven to be a perfect match to depict all aspects of the operation. "Usually, we create videos that revolve around a specific question or problem," adds Torborg. "This makes it easier to get started with the topic at hand and the viewer knows exactly what it’s about." 

 

Image 1: In addition to screencasts, Michael Torborg also creates live action films for his clients. This makes the operating steps look more authentic. 

Photo: Michael Torborg

 

Preparing a topic

Once the basic objective of the video has been determined, the technical communicator should become as familiar as possible with the process to be documented and develop an overview of the operating steps to be displayed. This includes reading the existing technical documentation and knowing the steps and their sequence – if available – or possible initial discussions with technicians or engineers who are familiar with the hardware and the respective tasks. The procedures should be recorded as a summary or ideally as a script or storyboard. The script or storyboard provide the necessary structure and serve as a guide while filming or editing. 

Making a note of the relevant points

In general, creating a script is useful. It sets the tone and structure for a video, enumerating all the important steps in the right order and precisely formulating spoken passages. The tools and warnings needed for execution should also be included in the script and thus in the final video. Before recording, stakeholders and specialists have the task of reviewing and approving the script to ensure that it depicts the process completely and accurately. Afterwards, the document is used as a guide for the required scenes during the actual video shoot and it also plays a key role in the editing process.

Storyboards are recommended as an alternative or supplement to a script. They define the visual structure of a scene in greater detail. More information, examples and templates for building scripts and storyboards can be easily found online.

At least a brief list of key points should be created if a script or storyboard cannot be created at the time of shooting. The list should contain the steps and workflows to be expected. In addition, new findings and unexpected changes in the scope of the documentation often occur during the actual shoot. The final script and video must be able to accommodate these. Even after planning everything very well, a certain amount of flexibility is inevitable; this must also be taken into account. 

Bringing light into darkness

The target group of technical communicators often consists of engineers or technicians. The videos explain a number of steps and sequences, for example, for the maintenance of a technical product. For documentation purposes, the processes have to be shown directly on the system in question (live action) and recorded. 

For choosing the required equipment, it is advisable to visit the location of the shoot as much in advance as possible and to get an initial overview of the lighting, acoustics and spatial conditions; how is the surround sound and what background noise and other sources of interference can be expected? Are all the details that have to be shown for the technical product clearly visible? Can all areas be easily covered by the camera? 

It is bound to happen that some areas will be badly lit and therefore additional light sources will be needed to achieve good results. Finally, it is better to check if there are objects or details in the area that are not part of the video. These can be machines in the background, company-internal information or even passwords. Furthermore, a written consent must be taken of all persons appearing in the video. 

It need not be an expensive affair

Those who are just starting out with videos need not use professional camera equipment right away. Many times, good results can be achieved with simple tools. A camera and a tripod for shake-free shots, some light and a microphone are a solid starting point for good results:

 

  • Modern smartphones or tablets are good starting points for using videos in mobile documentation. Mobile devices deliver high quality videos and are easy to operate. The popular video formats MP4 and MOV can be easily imported and processed in a video editing program. Of course, higher quality cameras give better results, but they are not a prerequisite for technical purposes. 
  • A tripod is definitely recommended so that the video is wobble-free and professional. Classic tripods with smartphone holders are the first choice here. Tripods with flexible arms, for example Gorilla pods, are recommended for close-ups and for shooting in narrow areas. These small devices can be attached almost anywhere on a machine. They help record in confined spaces and from special perspectives. 
  • A good shot is the result of correct image content and good light. Investing in one to two mobile light sources is therefore worthwhile in order to be prepared for poor lighting conditions. Often, simple LED add-ons for tablets or cameras are enough to brighten an area. A more professional solution can be achieved with a three-point lighting.
  • Built-in microphones in smartphones and cameras are good enough for audio recordings only but reveal their weaknesses in noisy or reverberating recording environments, outdoors, and during distance shots. External microphones provide an audible quality difference and should therefore be a part of any good equipment. Beginners can use small directional microphones, which can be directly attached to smartphones or cameras. 
  • Video recordings and additional lighting require a lot of energy. Adequate free disk space must be available when shooting. One should also always be equipped with additional batteries.

An increasing number of projects and busier routines also increase editorial demands, as a result of which video equipment can be gradually upgraded and replaced.

Teamwork makes the recording of videos easier

Teamwork is required for the actual shoot. There should be at least two people: one to perform the steps on a technical product and the other to record the actions. Individual work steps are shown and recorded in their natural order. This is based on the prepared basic concept or script, if available, and any changes to the planned process are obviously to be noted. 

In the best case, each step should be shot from at least two perspectives and should contain a close-up. If a smartphone or tablet is used, then the video should obviously be shot in the landscape format. This allows better processing of the video clips later.

Normally, the video is dubbed. However, the original sound should always be recorded so that technically relevant statements of the technicians and background noise get recorded. During the subsequent dubbing, the live sound can be played in the background. This makes the video more authentic. 

Back to our example: "It is important to film each step from at least two perspectives – once from a distance and once in close-up," Michael Torborg explains his approach. Basically, it is always better to create more material rather than less since you often get only one chance to record, recommends Torborg. Further: "We then view and reduce the material, the sequences that belong together are cut together." The finished video should cover all important aspects and yet be rather short. For a very complex topic, a technical communicator should create several short videos rather than one very long one. This makes video production manageable. 

Making the right choice

During a shoot, usually more material is shot than is ultimately needed. This is very useful. As already mentioned before, viewing the recordings is therefore an important step. Barret Baxter, video editor and video production specialist, explains how he does it: "I divide the individual recordings into three categories." Baxter's first category includes the recordings, which clearly show already defined scenes and steps of his script. The second category includes the recordings that contain other important points and quotes, offer interesting perspectives and could be generally helpful, but for which he has not found a defined use yet. All recordings should be renamed during this process itself to make allocation and retrieval easy at a later stage. The third category is reserved for all recordings whose content and quality are not convincing. They are kept temporarily as a reserve, rarely used and subsequently deleted.

Editing starts once the recordings have been sorted. Based on the material from the first and second category, the script is reviewed and modified again. This ensures that all essential steps are shown and possible deviations are taken into account during the shoot. If the video is too long, a topic can still easily be divided into several individual videos in the processing step.

Image 2: Barret Baxter produces videos for TechSmith. After recording, he sorts individual clips into three categories. 

Photo: TechSmith

 

Finding the right sound

Audio dubbing makes sense in most cases, for example when recording in a noisy environment. This is the only way to convey information clearly and precisely. The script serves as a word-guide and a professional speaker is not required here. What is important is simple and comprehensible language and good recording quality. 

A good microphone and a quiet recording environment are important factors for good sound quality. We recommend the use of the free software Audacity for audio recording. The audio file should then be exported to the WAV or MP3 format for further processing.

Editing in the easiest possible way

The video editing program that is used should be highly effective and have a multi-track timeline, but at the same time be very easy to use. A good guide with video tutorials is indispensable so that an autodidact can learn the software quickly. 

In a video project, editing dimensions must be determined. These, in turn, specify production dimensions: 1920 x 1080 pixels or 1280 x 720 pixels are recommended sizes. Next, the audio and video recordings must be imported into the selected video editing program and added to the timeline. Video expert Barret Baxter says: "I usually start with the audio file, which dictates the structure of the video." In the next step, Baxter adds the video recording, arranges it on the timeline and trims it. The pictures shown should correspond to and be synchronized with the points mentioned in the audio. When selecting images, he ensures that long distance and close-up shots are alternated depending on which perspective shows the work step clearly. 

Existing technical drawings, photos or diagrams can additionally be imported as image files into the video software and inserted into the video to support the statements. Likewise, other text or graphic elements can be added in the commonly used software in order to illustrate statements or to warn against dangers. 

Content created in a professional context usually has to be CI-compliant. Videos are no exception to this. Therefore, videos start with a short title clip that identifies the subject of the video and presents company-specific branding with logos and colors. The branding can be additionally integrated into the fonts, graphics and credits used. In good editing programs, the editor can save these elements as a template for other videos. 

Sharing

Once you are satisfied with the synchronization of the picture and audio material, the video must be produced in a commonly used video format. In practice, MP4 has established itself as a universal output format. It can play on almost any device, can be uploaded to video platforms such as YouTube and offers a good compromise between quality and compact size. For good results, the production dimensions should be consistent with the editing dimensions already mentioned. After successful production, the MP4 video file can be shared and used by other users. 

It need not be an expensive affair

Audiovisual content is increasingly establishing itself as an integral part of technical documentation rather than an optional offer, and is increasingly in demand in various sectors. Owing to this development, it has become the task of technical communicators to study the possibilities in depth and gradually assimilate the expertise and standard operating procedure to create videos. Good planning is the foundation for smooth and flexible implementation. As a general rule, making of videos for technical purposes need not be expensive to be professional. It is more about the targeted, efficient creation of a video that focuses on the correct depiction of complex content. What initially sounds like extra work and requires more intensive study of the topic itself, offers long-term added value and gives technical communicators the opportunity to explore a new technical area. 

 

Frequent Mistakes of Beginners

  • Lack of preparation leads to problems during shooting and costs time.
  • Lighting conditions and background noise at the location of the shoot are not taken into account.
  • Insufficient disk space and no spare batteries.
  • Distance to the subject is too much when shooting close-ups.
  • Individual recordings are not clearly named and sorted and are therefore difficult to locate.