Estimating How Long it Takes to Make a Video

by Aaron Bannasch

A fairly common question for anyone involved in making videos is “How long will it take?”

A Venn Diagram triad is sometimes drawn in response to this question, it includes words like: Good, Fast, and Cheap. “Pick any two.”

So when estimating how long a video will take to make (and in some cases also how long a video should be), I use that framework along with some simple tools and prior experiences to generate a reasonably accurate estimate. While there isn’t a simple formula, I’ll take you through some easily repeatable steps in this post that will help you answer both questions:

  1. How long will it take to make my video(s)?
  2. How long should my video(s) be?

How long will it take to make my video?

To begin with the first question, I start with the lowest cost method available to generate any early rough draft. For some this may be a handy typewriter, others it’s standing in front of a mirror with a stopwatch, working on a napkin sketch, or narrating over an existing presentation slide deck. The common elements here are that a video lesson assumes A) there is someone or something generating sounds, mostly in the form of spoken words and B) there are moving images accompanying these sounds. In a typewritten draft of a video, all of the sounds and images are described by text. In a napkin sketch or while talking to yourself in the mirror, some of the sounds come from your voice or your indications in the illustration, and some of the visuals come from your gestures or diagrams. When you type out a script, you can estimate the length of the final video by using a free online word timer or by reading it aloud and timing yourself. If you’re working from a verbal performance or a sketch, you can time yourself during that as well, or better yet, record yourself with any available recording device (a phone, a laptop, a digital camera). As you repeat this process to generate more and more rough drafts with readily available resources you can start to build a system for yourself, a way to estimate your own video duration.

Now, this doesn’t build in the time it takes to turn a rough draft into a finished product. It also doesn’t account for the time it takes to write prepare the script, outline, sketch, or presentation materials in the first place. If you’re speaking about a concept that you’re very familiar with, or working from an outline or presentation that you’ve given in another format or setting in the past, then the scripting phase can be very short. But I usually work with at least one, if not multiple, rough drafts before recording the final product because I only have a faint idea of the concept I want to explain. The act of writing, drawing, or performing portions of the concept makes it tangible. I can then edit that draft to turn it into the pieces necessary to make a video.

Sometimes there are constraints that limit the amount of time that can be spent reworking a rough draft (Good, Fast, Cheap) and for this reason I don’t go past three iterations before I record a final version. There’s not a rule for why I choose that amount, it’s just a personal preference. Since video lessons aren’t multi-million dollar Hollywood blockbusters, there can’t be a lot of time spent developing something before you put it in front of an audience. The fourth element to Good, Fast, or Cheap is “Do the students care?” and you won’t know that until you give them something. Which brings us to Question 2:

How long should my video be?

Using available research to estimate video length helps us here. Not every concept can fit into the duration of an average video on YouTube. Some lessons require more time than that. This is why estimating a video duration before actually recording it is so important. You can assess your script to find out if there are places to remove content to save time, to simplify it to only the essentials, to find spots in the narrative where a natural break occurs that matches up conveniently with the recommended duration of a video. Converting your videos into a series of segments is helpful to everyone. It helps the instructor organize their thoughts, the learning designers and instructional technologists to edit the content and structure it in a course site, and the students to have a clear outline and table of contents to work with. It also helps measure student response to videos and makes it easy to identify which segments are most valuable to student learning. When videos are short segments, you can quickly record a replacement to improve an individual piece without having to replace the entire series. Keeping the scripting and recording process simple reduces the editing time as well.

Consider the following example.

I want to make a video to explain a concept. I arrive at my recording time, either in the DL Studio or on my own computer using a screen recording tool with and webcam, and I begin recording. After about 10 minutes I lose my train of thought, have stopped twice to restate a few phrases, and have repeated myself once because I forgot that I already mentioned something earlier. I begin again. And again. Each time a few pieces end up being usable, so I figure after about 7 takes I can splice together all of the pieces that are good. It works OK, but feels a little disjointed because none of the pieces of this 10 minute video were planned to fit together, they just happened to have to work because that’s what came out when I started recording.

Another example.

I begin recording without anything more than 5 slides, each with a few bullet points. I figure a slide can’t take me more than two minutes to cover, but somehow I end up talking for 35 minutes. Wow. That was a lot of time, and I feel like I covered everything. I don’t really want to spend another 35 minutes doing a second take, so this is good enough. Students watch the video, they skip around and ultimately stop watching.

A final example.

I write an outline and record myself talking about it. I draw a few sketches as I talk. I review my recording and realize that three topics in the video is too much, so I take my sketch and make another short video describing it. I stop the recording, I draw a more detailed sketch for each of the three parts in my larger sketch. I record a short video for each. I write down what I said in each rough recording and realize that the overview video can just be a simple diagram with a few labels. I now have three short scripts, each with a detailed illustration of a concept, that I want to record at a higher quality for students. I estimate based on the script word count that each video is 4 minutes long, and that if I budget for 3 tries for each video I can record them all in under an hour. Since I planned everything out, there’s no need to edit. I simply read from my script as I annotate my sketches in real time. When I’m done I export the videos. Students watch them and are able to apply the specific concepts detailed in each video to an assessment in the course. They go back and watch portions again. It’s a success.

Planning Ahead

The first example took 70 minutes to record. It took another 70 minutes to watch each recording and take string together the good parts.

The second example took 35 minutes to record, plus the time it took to make the 5 slides. Nobody watched it.

The third example is similar to the first example; it may take a few tries to record the rough drafts. But if you go into it expecting to make rough drafts, then at the end you don’t feel stuck with the output. You take that to build your final draft and record that a few times (maybe only once even since you’ve practiced so much) and then you have something that is succinct and structured. Editing it is a breeze, and updating it is just as easy, because you started out with the intention of having a modular, replicable process for your video creation. It wasn’t based on pure luck, and students are grateful for it.

For videos recorded in the DL studio we strongly encourage scripting. Or, if you prefer not to script, then budget ample time to practice over and over again. But for me personally, practicing over and over again while having multiple people stare at me, under bright lights, knowing that this is going to be the final version that someone actually watches, is a little stressful. I don’t want to sweat on HD video, so I’d much rather make a few no-cost recordings on my phone at home before I do the real thing.

Now, all of this planning is for videos that are going to remain in a course for awhile. Video is so instantaneous that you can quickly create a video without much forethought and post it for the world to see. Quick moments on video like this can make an asynchronous course site feel more lively and add some personality to otherwise static pages of text. I encourage spontaneous uses of video like this for those who are comfortable with it. But for videos lessons that require structure and that students expect a level of quality and efficiency from, planning is the way to go.