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ScreenFlow: Screencasting on Steroids

There used to be an advertisement – I forget what it was for, exactly – that portrayed the user sitting in an armchair facing his computer, with his hair, his dog, and everything else in the room streaming backward, blown by the metaphorical force of whatever was happening on the computer screen. Well, that user is me using Vara Software’s ScreenFlow. It isn’t just good: it’s eye-opening. I quite frankly had no idea that an application could look and act like this. This program has knocked my socks off – with my shoes on.

ScreenFlow makes screencasts. A screencast, in this context, is simply a screen capture movie – a movie of your computer screen, capturing what you do (and, optionally, what you say). This might not seem sexy to you, but please accept, for purposes of discussion, that to some of us, screencasts are very, very important. As a documentation writer, I have to explain to users how to work with software. As a beta tester, I have to describe to a developer how to trigger a bug. As a dutiful son, I have to show my mother how to remove Bookmarks Bar items in Safari. In all these cases and many more, I find that one moving picture is often worth ten thousand words.

In the past, I always made screencasts with Ambrosia Software’s Snapz Pro X. But without prejudice to Snapz Pro – a wonderful utility, which I use constantly – it has never worked as well as it should have for movies. It has no option to compress sound, so narrated movies are always huge; therefore, I always have to recompress afterwards (I use the wonderful QTAmateur for that, as I’m too stingy to pay for QuickTime Pro). Plus, I’ve never found a setting where onscreen text appears in crisp focus in the resulting movie.

With ScreenFlow, these problems are gone; but that doesn’t begin to explain what’s great about ScreenFlow. Let me talk you through the process of making a screen capture movie with this amazing program.

Ready When You Are, Mr. DeMille — With ScreenFlow running, and with your recording options set up, you signal to ScreenFlow that you want it to start recording. (You can use a status menu, the Dock menu, or a global keyboard shortcut for this.) Your screen is momentarily covered by a dark transparent curtain, along with a window that counts down (“5, 4, 3, 2, 1”) to the moment when recording will start. The curtain vanishes, and the “camera” is rolling. You do and say whatever you want to make a movie of, and then signal to ScreenFlow to stop recording (in any of the same ways whereby you signaled it to start).

Now, with most screen capture programs, that’s effectively the end. (Snapz Pro, for example, when you finish recording, puts up a window where you can enter your QuickTime export settings; at this point, you either save the movie or you don’t, and that’s that.) But with ScreenFlow, things are only beginning. You suddenly find yourself rocketed into a window that looks very much like iMovie HD – the good old iMovie, the one with timelines at the bottom, remember? There, top and center, is the screen capture you just made. Below it are simple video controls to play, rewind, and advance the movie, and a sound level meter. Below that are your timelines: typically, one for the video, one for the narration.

What’s happening is that you’re now in a document, within a movie editing application. ScreenFlow is offering you a chance to edit your movie before exporting it. You can edit now, or you can just save the document (and even quit ScreenFlow) and return to it later. What sort of editing can you do within ScreenFlow? Well, for starters:

  • You can select a region of the timeline and cut it – good for removing that unnecessary throat-clearing at the start of the movie.
  • You can split a timeline, grow or shrink a timeline segment, and move timeline segments around. You might use this to improve the synchronization of narration and video, or to remove poor narration.
  • You can add existing media, such as MP3 music or a JPEG picture, to the document. Newly added media appear in a media area at the upper right, much as in iMovie, ready to be dragged into a timeline. Thus you might add background music, or a title.
  • You can create a new recording – sound, video, or both – and add it to the file as new media. Thus you could redo segments of the narration, or possibly the entire narration (in fact, you can watch the existing video in ScreenFlow while recording new narration).
  • You can crop the movie frame. Unlike, say, Snapz Pro, where you specify a screen region before recording, ScreenFlow records the whole screen and lets you crop later. Even when you crop the movie frame, ScreenFlow still remembers the entire captured screen (this point will be important later).
  • You can make other adjustments to your timeline media. For example, you might alter the audio volume, or change the video scale. You can also change video transparency (good for that title we added earlier).
  • You can make adjustments to video media within the movie frame. For example, suppose that as you recorded the screen, you also had ScreenFlow record an image of you, using your computer’s built-in iSight. (Oh, did I neglect to mention that you could do this? Silly me.) When you watch the resulting movie in ScreenFlow, the image of you is a small frame at the lower right, superimposed on the image of your computer screen. If that isn’t where you want it, you can reposition it. You can also resize it, rotate it in three dimensions, and even add a reflection and a shadow. But please, don’t get carried away. Okay, fine, get carried away!

Lights, Camera, Actions — But wait, there’s more – a lot more. You can also add “Actions” to your movie. To understand, imagine that you are a music engineer. As the musicians play, you are twiddling dials to raise and lower the sound level on various tracks. Now imagine that this twiddling is itself somehow recorded. That’s what an Action is: it’s a specification of a twiddle, to be applied as the movie plays.

For example, earlier I said that you could alter the audio volume. But what if you want to duck the audio volume – lowering it, not as a whole, but starting some distance into the movie? Simple. Position the playhead at the point where you want the volume to duck, select the audio clip in its timeline, and click Add Audio Action. Now lower the audio volume with the slider. Done! To change the rate at which the volume reduces, widen or narrow the Audio Action, which appears as an overlay on the audio timeline.

You can do the same thing with video. Recall my example where there’s a small image of you superimposed on the image of your computer screen, and you reposition it. If you reposition it as part of a Video Action, the resulting movie will show the image of you moving from one spot to another.

Similarly, earlier I mentioned that the whole screen is captured. But suppose you want to zoom in on one area of the screen, or pan a cropped movie from one area of the screen to another. Again, you can do this with a Video Action. To pan a cropped movie, for example, you’d add the Video Action, then slide the crop region to the desired part of the screen.

Thus, by splitting your video into multiple clips and using Video Actions, possibly along with additional media, you can get some very cool transition effects even though ScreenFlow lacks QuickTime “transitions” in the iMovie sense.

I’m Ready For My Close-up — But wait, there’s still more. It turns out that while it was capturing your screen, ScreenFlow was also recording a lot of extra information. You can manipulate that information, as desired, in parts of the movie.

For example, ScreenFlow has remembered all the keys you pressed during the screen capture. Suppose you want all or part of your movie to show the viewer what those keys were. To do so, you add a different kind of Action – a Screen Recording Action. One of the options here is “Show Keys Pressed”; the result is that, once this Action takes effect, key presses are represented textually in a rectangle in the middle of the movie.

Similarly, ScreenFlow has remembered the cursor position and mouse clicks throughout the screen capture, so if you want an enlarged cursor in your movie, or if you want mouse clicks represented visually or audibly, you can have that too. Thus, instead of using another utility such as Mousepose and setting it up beforehand to get these effects, I can just make my screen capture and then include the effects later.

Coolest of all the effects you can add during editing are “callouts.” Here, a region of the movie is isolated, to call the viewer’s attention to it; the rest of the screen can be darkened and blurred, and the isolated region can be enlarged, as if someone had stuck a magnifying glass over it. You can isolate in this way a circular area around the mouse cursor or a rectangular area matching the frontmost window portrayed in the movie.

Closing Credits — When you’re ready to export your movie, you have access to the full range of QuickTime compression codecs and settings for video and audio, as well as scaling; you can also elect to chapterize your movie using markers you’ve placed in the timeline. This is only an export and your ScreenFlow document is still a saved document, so if you’re not satisfied with the resulting movie – the exported movie is too big, the scaling is too small, you’d like to change some editing decisions, whatever – you can always alter the document, export again with different settings, and so on. And by the way, the exported movies are gorgeously, perfectly focused; the viewer can see every detail of what was on
your screen.

ScreenFlow is a stunning, clean, clear, beautifully designed application. I understood most of it within about 10 minutes of trying the demo (whose limitation is that exports are watermarked); but the application also includes very good online documentation, including a tutorial that corresponds to a tutorial document embedded in the application. Also, there are (of course!) some online screencast tutorials, created with (of course!!) ScreenFlow itself.

ScreenFlow costs $99.99. It requires Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard, a G4 or better (or Intel), and Quartz Extreme capability; and the availability of some features may depend upon the quality of your graphics processor. The demo is a 4.7MB download.

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