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How It's Made: Follow a Tuts+ Course Production from Start to Finish

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In this tutorial, we go behind the scenes on how an Envato Tuts+ course comes to life and take you from start to finish on a production. You'll learn how we make our videos, plus a few key lessons from our workflow that you can apply to any video production. It might give you ideas about how to manage your own creative projects or even how to manage a remote team. Read on to see how it happens!

Online video lessons illustration

The Three Keys to Video Production in a Distributed Team

You might already know that Envato Tuts+ has video courses for all types of creative work, including programmingphotography and video productionaudio, but did you know that the Tuts+ team is entirely remote? Video production is complicated at the best of times, but working all over the world adds some unique challenges. After producing 104,813 minutes of course video (that's 72.79 days of video, and counting) we've developed some strong but flexible systems to help make our work happen.

The foundations of our production system are asynchronous collaboration (meaning not everyone works at the same time), flexible deadlines, lots of autonomy, clear style guidelines, a DIY ethos, plenty of support, and a deep commitment to continuous learning.

Our video projects happen in four stages: inception, planning, action, and termination. I've broken the tutorial down into these sections, too.

Before we get to that, though, let's do a little a bit of background on Tuts+ and take a look at three key things you need to make good video productions as a distributed team:

Distributed Team Teaching

The Tuts+ Photo & Video editor, Jackson Couse, is in Ottawa, Canada. There are Tuts+ editors for each of the sections, and they're spread across Europe, the UK, and the US. We also have a producer in Vancouver, Canada and a production assistant in Thailand. The social media, customer support, and developer teams are at Envato head office in Melbourne, Australia.

Instructors like me are all over the world. For many instructors, teaching with Tuts+ is an natural extension of their creative practice and a rewarding way to share the things they've learned. We come from all walks of life, and have all kinds of experiences, interests, and abilities. One of things that we share is a passion for teaching. Making courses is a great way to stretch, grow, and connect with a community of passionate people.

Coordinating such a diverse, distributed group is tough. With people all over the world, all pulling in separate directions, things can easily go awry. A feeling of shared purpose is one of the most important ingredients to working successfully with a distributed team.

If you're self-motivated and disciplined, working remote is terrific. If you need some external motivation to keep going (and who doesn't) it can be tricky. With distributed production there is no "showing up for work," no bums in chairs, no punching the clock. Everyone starts with the best intentions, but teaching is hard and you can quickly lose focus. A technical hiccup can cause your production to derail. So many things can go wrong! This can be especially frustrating and uncomfortable, even a bit overwhelming, for new instructors. Your team will never, ever be completely on the same page in the way a well-oiled local team can be. You can't just sit down to hash things out like you could face-to-face.

It's good to remember that online education and remote work are still emerging practices. There's no blueprint for this stuff, and it's far from perfect.

It's Not Going to be Perfect

That brings us to the first key: patience. Understand that nobody has all the answers, and that, honestly, we're basically making this up as best we can as we go along. It's really important that everyone on your team knows that this is okay.

Many of the forces that conspire to make a course successful are out of your control. You can nudge things in the right direction with a smart social media campaign, good search engine optimization, lots of market research in the first place, and so on, but when it comes right down to it making a good course doesn't guarantee you viewers. Most video online is decidedly not viral. Moreover, the way the internet works or what audiences want can (and does) shift pretty radically, seemingly overnight.

So the second key is forgiveness. If a course doesn't perform the way you hoped, take the long view. Everyone on our team is learning how to make courses, editors and staff included. Forgive yourself for not making a perfect course this time and your next one will be all the better for it.

Third key is trust. Give everyone, including yourself, the space to experiment and make mistakes. Have faith that the people you work with are going to do their best. If you don't trust them yet, find a way to build it. Nothing works better than making work together. A distributed team can be strong and resilient, flexible and interesting. It all starts with patience, forgiveness, and trust.

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Stage One: An Idea is Born

How does an idea become a course?

The relationship between Tuts+ instructors and editors is very collaborative. Tuts+ is editorially driven, and functions like many other educational publishers, but gives instructors lots of room to explore their interests.

Flow Space

My editor maintains a Trello board that our team uses to collaborate. Trello is based on the Japanese Kanban system where "cards" represent each project (a tutorial or course). A card lives on a virtual tackboard and as a project develops we move the card between lists to track progress. At any given time, our team is running many, many projects in parallel and the Trello board facilitates this.

Tuts Photo  Video Section Trello Board
The Tuts+ Photo and Video team relies heavily on Trello, a project management tool built on cards. As a project progresses, we move the card across the board into lists that remind us what stage a project is at.

Pitching

Sometimes I pitch Jackson on an idea inspired by something I've been working on outside of Tuts+. Sometimes an idea arises in the process of completing a Tuts+ project. Other times, Jackson will approach me with an idea for a course that will meet an editorial need or fill a gap. Ultimately, we're looking to help people learn the things they need to find success in their journey as photographers and students.

Every idea for a course begins as a pitch on the Trello board. I'll setup a card and pitch Jackson on the course that I'm thinking about. I include a hook (basically a little story about why the course matters), who the course is meant for, what it will cover, and any other context I can think of that might be important. We trade a few messages and then, if it looks like the idea has promise, I create an informal outline. At this point Jackson will either give the go-ahead to keep working on the project or offer some redirection on the original idea.

Moving Cards in Trello
Trello is based upon a system of cards moving between lists. The lists in our system are labeled such as "Pitches", "Assigned", "Submitted", "Deadlined", and "Published." As an article progresses, we move the card from left to right between the lists to track it.

If you've not checked out Trello I highly recommend it. It has obvious uses for programmers or project managers but can be adapted to any situation where tracking progress matters.

My favorite thing about the Trello board is that all of our production is out in the open! I find myself spending many hours browsing the board, reading about what everyone else is working on, even when I'm uninvolved. It's neat seeing my colleagues work through the process in their own way.

Planning a course illustration

Stage Two: Build the Foundation

Planning is the largest and most important part of making any course. We vet a course at every stage to make sure it's viable to produce and meets a specific need in the editorial plan.

After we have agreed on a rough sketch of the course idea, I start writing a more thorough outline and create a detailed course plan to share with Jackson.

Meanwhile, Jackson creates a project on Basecamp for the potential course. Basecamp, like Trello, is a project management tool. While Trello is a great "high level" management tool for everything going on within Tuts+, Basecamp lets us dive a deeper on each course. Breaking things out like this helps keep Trello tidy.

Basecamp Overview of course projects
Trello is used for managing everything from tutorials to courses, but we use Basecamp for detailed management of the courses we produce.

During the writing process, I'll often circle back with Jackson on decisions I'm making about the course. Jackson provides invaluable insight about direction; his strength is in steering the ship and delegating the creative parts of the process.

Jackson will give the go-ahead on the course after we agree on the deliverables. At this point, we know with some certainty what the finished product will look like and what it will contain. Tuts+ has a variety of course lengths, such as 60-90 minute feature length productions, 45 minute productions we call "short courses," and a 10-12 minute quick lesson called a "Coffee Break Course." My most recent productions have followed this Coffee Break Course format.

Continuous Testing and Improvement

While we're developing the outline we're also working on new teaching ideas or issues we've identified from previous courses. This could be tweaking parts of the audio setup or taking advice on how to structure the lessons.

Our process is iterative; every course we produce improves upon the ones before it. I make notes about what works and what doesn't, and share them with my team to draw from their experiences. For me, the most important thing is presenting the material in a way that makes the viewer feel confident about what he or she is learning. 

How to Write Lessons

All good courses start with good writing. My first Tuts+ piece, a written tutorial, was published five years ago, in April 2011. My first course was published at the end of 2013. I've really ramped up my work in the last two years and have gradually moved into producing more courses. It takes practice to get comfortable with recording, to get good at planning lessons, and to learn how edit everything. It takes time to learn how to handle the equipment, too. Starting with written tutorials makes sense if you want to start teaching but aren't ready to jump in at the video deep end.

After receiving the go-ahead on the course plan it's time to go to work on writing the course lessons! I create a written script for each individual lesson. I'm not married to this script by any means; it just allows me to flesh out the ideas that the course will present. I try to be really conscious at this stage about who the audience is and what they already know about the application.

Courses are made up of lessons, and lessons are made up of subgoals. When I write a lesson I have a clear goal in mind for what the viewer should gain. A good lesson is like a recipe: a consistent set of ingredients will yield a good outcome for the cook!

I write the scripts for my lessons in Evernote, a cross-platform digital notebook application. It's great for capturing ideas and pasting in research I find online. You could just as easily use Microsoft Word or an online tool like Draft. Most of my writing is done at my desk at home, but I'll write at coffee shops to add some variety and inspiration. For my last series of Coffee Break courses we were producing six short courses in parallel. Each one had its own note in Evernote.

Evernote Screenshot courses in production
I write scripts for my courses using Evernote for Mac. When I'm finished with the lesson, I'll open Evernote for iPad and use it as a teleprompter for my lessons.

The majority of the time spent working on a course is in the writing stage. Depending upon the length of the course, writing the lessons can take from two to three weeks. I also save several days to edit my scripts.

When editing my writing, I read the lessons out loud and make sure they make sense as spoken word audio. Some people like to read the lessons out loud with an audience. This is called a "table read," and it's a great way to make sure that your delivery sounds right and your script is flowing nicely.

How to Set Yourself Up for Production

Control Sheet for course production
For each course, I create what I call a "control sheet" to manage the course production. Each line on this sheet corresponds to a lesson in my course. I note when I finish the writing, recording, and editing of each lesson. I also note the length of each lesson to keep me on track for a final course length.

At this stage I also begin setting goals for the course production using Numbers for Mac, a spreadsheet app that works well for tracking projects. I call this the "control sheet", and it helps me track my progress on each lesson. All lessons need to be written, recorded, edited, and submitted, and tracking each stage in the control sheet keeps things sane.

Video recording illustration

Stage Three: Record and Edit the Lessons

Time for action! Once I've finished writing and editing my lessons it's time to begin recording my screencasts.

My courses are a series of screencast videos. Screencasts are recordings of the presenter's screen, with voice-over audio narrating the process. They're a fantastic way of teaching because they give you an "over the shoulder" view of an expert practicing his or her craft. Most of the courses on Tuts+ are screencasts, but we do make some on-camera courses too. On-camera is great for topics that need a physical demonstration, like how to photograph a portrait outdoors or how to fly a drone, for example.

Simple Screencasting Setup

I'm a Mac user, and ScreenFlow for Mac is my software of choice for recording (Camtasia is a good choice for PC folks). It's a specialized piece of video recording and editing software for screencasters. It's pretty lightweight and skips many of the advanced features of full video editing suites like Final Cut or Avid.

Screen Flow Interface
Screenflow is a combination screen recorder and screencast editor. As soon as I finish recording, the file is available for editing within the app. It has handy features for incorporating callouts and other visualization tools that are easy to add.

All of my screencasts are recorded at home in my makeshift closet studio. I have a small desk I keep in that space specifically for recording screencasts. Clothes hanging in a closet will dampen the echo and contribute to high quality audio. It's not as fancy as a studio, but it works!

I position my Blue Yeti USB microphone just in front of my face and use a pop filter to dampen any vocal "pop" sounds. While I record, I wear headphones: this lets me hear any unwanted sounds that could ruin the lesson. Rob Maysez has a series of great tutorials on choosing equipment for home recording, treating your room, mic technique, and how to process and compress your audio recordings.

Closet Studio setup
Amongst my wrinkled clothes and some basic sound treatment panels, you'll find a small desk where I record all of my Tuts+ screencasts. Closets drive high quality, low echo audio. 

It's helpful to have a checklist to run through before each recording session to keep the content consistent and avoid any missteps. My checklist includes these items:

  • Turn off all notifications on all devices in my room
  • Set my MacBook's resolution to 1280x800
  • Open my script on Evernote for iPad, which is synced to my Evernote account and I use while recording
  • Check my audio levels using headphones connected directly to the microphone

Good Sound Goes a Long Way

The quality of your audio recording is one of the first things, if not the first thing, that influences the potential student's impression of the quality of your course. Believe it or not, high quality productions can be done at home with gear you might already own. That said, investing in audio is definitely worth it.

Having someone else listen to your test recordings is crucial. Preferably it's someone who has a good ear, like a TV or radio producer or a musician. They will inevitably hear things you don't. Tiffany Brown-Olsen, the Tuts+ team's in-house producer, is a fantastic resource to instructors. She helped me overhaul my own setup and made some valuable suggestions for microphone positioning.

Screencast courses have a lot in common with radio in that it's safe to assume the audience's attention is somewhat divided. I like to think that you could still learn from my lessons with your eyes closed. Also try listening to your recordings on different devices. How does it sound on wimpy computer speakers? On headphones? From your smartphone?

Common Audio Problems to Avoid

Here are some audio production things to beware of while recording your lessons, and some simple watch-out's for minimizing their impact:

  • Plosives: Ever heard a popping effect in your recording? If so, you've run into plosives! These are the result of the "proximity effect," which is a quirk of how microphones work, and can commonly be heard in words with a strong "p" sound in them. The best solution is to use a pop filter. You can also train yourself to push out less air when making these sounds.
  • Sibilance: Sibilance is the hissing sound that's noticeable with words ending in "-s." Obviously, it's not possible to avoid all words that end with a certain letter. If you find you have a sibilant voice, first try changing your mic placement. Wearing headphones will help you monitor for this issue most accurately. A de-essing filter in some applications will reduce the effect. If none of that works, look for a new microphone that works better for your voice.
  • Clipping: Clipping is a negative outcome of keeping your audio recording levels too high. When audio is clipped, the signal is simply too strong to capture any data. The solution is to reduce your microphone recording level. This is managed either with a physical dial on the microphone, or through recording software. It's usually indicated by red warning bars on the levels or audio waveforms in your software.
  • Environmental noise: The biggest danger while recording is having some sound in your environment that's disruptive for the viewer. I've ruined many recordings by forgetting to turn off the fan in my room or leaving my phone's audio on. Environmental sounds could also be a noisy neighbor or busy road within reach of your microphone. If possible, distance yourself.

The Performance

The recording process is challenging! When you're balancing holding a script, controlling the mouse, and attempting to speak professionally you're bound to make mistakes. Stay calm. When I misspeak in any way, I'll pause for a few seconds and then immediately jump back into recording without breaking the flow. These stoppages will be fixed in the editing stage and blended in a way that sounds professional.

The key here is that it doesn't take a sophisticated setup to record good material. A consumer-level laptop and basic USB microphone with some sound treatment is more than enough for a high quality product. Beyond a certain technical minimum for gear, what really matters is how you connect and deliver the material.

How to Edit the Lessons

After recording is finished, it's time to transition to the editing stage. I typically take a few days off after I finish recording and then dive back into the project. Having a fresh set of eyes can really improve the outcome of a screencast.

The editing stage is equal part correction and enhancement. The corrections are simply to cut out duplicate audio, spots where you've restarted the script after making a mistake, audio problems, and so on.

The final product will sound smooth, but the original file is far from it. A raw screencast needs a lot of cutting, trimming, and editing to make it sound professional. The final timeline contains dozens of cuts where I've pieced together the best possible portions of the audio and created continuity. If I've missed something important or felt like I wasn't clear, I might even go back and re-record a lesson. The point is that we're all human, and the editing stage is part of the process.

At times, I've outsourced editing the screencasts to others because it can be so time consuming. I've ultimately found that I enjoy the editing process and prefer doing it myself as a quality control measure.

Callouts and Title Cards

Depending on the material, I might also add some callouts to my video, which help focus a viewer's attention on a specific part of the screen. 

Callouts in Screencast
In this video, I used a callout to bring attention to the "Collections" panel. A callout in Screenflow can dim the background and bring the viewer's attention to a specific on-screen element.

Finally, I'll create slides that go into the video. These are either title slides that act as introductions, or supplementary slides that explain a concept. 

Keynote Slides Finished
The Tuts+ instructor pack includes slide templates for PowerPoint and Keynote. I'll create intro slides for each lesson and drop them into the videos.

Throughout the entire recording process, I'm marking off my progress in the Numbers control sheet.

Live Video Gives the Course a Personal Touch

Typically, my courses include a live video introduction. Live videos help our viewers connect with instructors and put a face with a name. It can be a bit intimidating to appear on camera if it's something you're not used to.

Tuts+ has a laid back, casual-but-professional style of live video. For the recent series of Coffee Break Courses, I rented a room at a local coffee shop as a simple backdrop. I hired a friend to record and cut the video together, although I sometimes record the live video myself. A DSLR and an external microphone (whether it's a lapel mic or a boom mic) is enough to produce high quality video.

Recording an intro in a coffee shop
A simple, clean background is best for online video.

Consistently producing a good image and sound is tricky, though, especially if you don't have a dedicated area for it. It's hard to stand in front of and behind the camera at the same time! I suggest that you don't do it alone, and if you're going to incorporate on-camera video make sure you put in the time and the learning investment to do it well. It can really pay off: the video intro is the first thing your potential student will see.

It's best to record any live video after all of the screencasts have been finished, particularly if the live videos are introductions or conclusions. That way you'll know for certain how to introduce the content that you're teaching.

Stage Four: Delivery, Publication, and Review

Once all of the editing is finished I'll send over exported video lessons to Jackson for review. We use a Dropbox share to make this happen. I simply export my videos as finished MP4 files, upload, and place the finished course notes and related files with them.

Review

Jackson takes the files and runs them through a number of checks to find glitches, dropped frames, audio problems, and so on. He watches all the lessons, and if there's anything that needs fixing he lets me know.

If everything looks good then Richard, the production assistant, goes to work. He normalizes the audio loudness to -16 LUFS, compresses the videos, and uploads everything to the Tuts+ content management system. Richard schedules the course for publication.

Postmortem

The process doesn't stop there, thought! I'm a big believer in performing a postmortem at the end of each project, which involves making a list of everything that went well, everything that didn't, and things that could be improved for the next course. When production is finished I post some closing thoughts on the Basecamp project, and Jackson does the same.

Close

At the end of the month, I send an invoice for the courses and content I've created. I archive my finished courses on an external hard drive.

Finally, we move the Trello card to the "Published" list: a happy time for everyone involved!

And that's it! What started as an idea on a Trello board around a month ago is now available for Tuts+ students all over the world. All told, my courses typically take between one and two months to complete.

Recap and Keep Learning

With a team based around the world and many projects running in parallel, strong systems are needed to produce high quality content. The combination of software tools and production systems we use keep our projects moving along and everyone in the loop.

For me, the time I have to work on a course each day is limited. Having structured processes and setting achievable goals keeps me moving and motivated, even if it's in very small steps. Recording courses in a sustainable way takes consistent engagement, good planning, and lots of help along the way. It's very doable!

Thanks so much for joining me. I hope you've enjoyed this behind-the-scenes look at how the Tuts+ team works! If you're interested in becoming a Tuts+ instructor our Teach at Envato Tuts+ page has everything you need to get started.

What tools and solutions do you use for your own projects? How do you make your remote team work? Let me know in the comments section.

Lastly, did you enjoy the artwork with this tutorial? It's by Envato Market user koctia and available for license. Thanks koctia!

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