From Lazarus to Leo Sayer, there's nothing quite like a good comeback. Over the past few months, we've been delighted at the return to popularity of screencasting - the process of recording your screen's output and turning it into a movie.
Screencasting is a new name, but it applies to a concept that is far from new - it was called screen recording when it first became popular a decade ago. The reason for its renaissance is tied to the growing appeal of broadband and streaming video, the booming popularity of video-capable MP3 players, and the arrival of technology that allows people to subscribe to video feeds and automatically download them.
Put these factors together and suddenly screencasts are hot. Two of the most popular - and presumably lucrative - video podcasts on iTunes at the moment, Screencasts Online and One Minute Tip, are home-created screencasts.
For many, this appeal might be surprising. Screencasting is popular with software developers, of course - they use it to promote applications in a far more enticing way than a text description would provide. But members of other professions, from teaching to business, can use screencasts to produce and distribute great multimedia presentations.
One of the most popular screencast tools, TechSmith's excellent Camtasia Studio 3.1 (www.techsmith.com), contains a plug-in that lets you create screencasts from within PowerPoint and repackage them as a movie file.
Camtasia is a complete package (the trial version is on the Cover Disc of the October 2006 issue of PC World Magazine, but if you kept your February 2005 issue, you'll already have an earlier full version). Aside from its screen-recording functions, it includes a timeline editor, so you can post-edit your recording's video and audio tracks and add supplementary video.
A titling tool and a menu-creation feature add polish (see Figure 1). It's not hard to see even a beginner producing a professional-level screencast after only a few hours' work.
You can export in most popular video formats. It's always a matter of some debate as to which format is best. If you're creating screencasts for a Web site, Flash probably affords the best mix of flexibility and power.
By exporting in Flash and embedding your screencast into an HTML (hypertext markup language) page, you can produce smaller files, accessible by just about anybody. If you haven't noticed the video walkthroughs we're putting on the Cover Disc these days (click on From the mag-Here's How Flash tutorials), these are also Flash-based.
There's another advantage. By keeping things in Flash, you can make use of Camtasia's amazing Flash animation effects and its built-in Flash Quiz tool - see Figure 2. This lets you build multiple-choice questions and drop them in the video's timeline, adding interactivity. If that isn't the ideal teaching aid, we don't know what is.
There are other impressive features available in all projects, including watermarking and callout tools. But our favourite is the ability to pan and zoom in a screencast, again from the timeline editor. You select a key point in the timeline, draw a rectangle over the area to zoom into and choose a zoom out point - see Figure 3. The result is a smooth transition.
Camtasia is a superb package; if only it was cheaper than $460 (www.microway.com.au). But this column has always been about getting something for nothing if you can, and there's no need to go to the expense of Camtasia to produce a quick screencast.