Principles of Smarthistory video production

Screenshot of editing the Seated Scribe video

Editing a Smarthistory video in Screenflow

Once you have your finished audio file and have createdcollected, and edited the images you need, you’re ready to start producing your video.

The five tenets of Smarthistory video production:

  1. Show what is said
  2. Keep it moving
  3. Invite close looking
  4. Design counts
  5. Minimize distractions

To help you see how these principles (explained in detail below) are applied in Smarthistory videos, we have annotated two of our own: the Seated Scribe and Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein.

Note: Don’t expect to make a good video in an afternoon. We spend a lot of time (sometimes several days) on image search, good design, and thinking about how to illustrate our audio clearly and succinctly.

1. Show what is said

Ideally, every detail discussed in the audio should be explicitly shown in the video, using closeups, text or visual annotations, or additional images. We assume that our viewers have no prior knowledge of the work, movement, artist, historical context, or of any specialized vocabulary. The idea is to support what is being said, and not distract from it. Our model is an instructor leading learners through a work of art in an art history classroom.

Any specialized vocabulary should be defined with succinct and clear text. Images should have short captions. This means that, for instance, when we’re talking about painterliness, we show the brushstrokes and put up a definition of “painterly”; when we’re discussing a location, we show a map or sometimes an exterior view; when we’re talking about a particular aspect of the iconography, we might use Photoshop or one of Screenflow’s annotation features to highlight it. We try to lead the viewer’s eye smoothly and confidently through all the features and issues that are discussed in the audio.

In order to adequately illustrate what is discussed in the audio, other images are usually needed. We often spend significant time on image researchAlways remember to include a credits page at the end of your video where you list the provenance and licenses (if applicable) of every image you use.

2. Keep it moving

Ideally, unless you’re pointing things out with annotations or doing a slow pan or zoom, no shot should be up for longer than 10 seconds or so (probably less in most cases, but not so much as to be distracting).

We always use dissolves to transition between images. This is not a rule; it’s part of our own unique style. Other video makers (like Sarah Green at the Art Assignment) cut between images with no transitions.

It’s easy to know what to show when there are specific formal or technical details being discussed in the audio. But what about times when there is no mention of anything visually specific (perhaps the speaker is talking about the historical context or the artist’s biography)?

In these cases, the video should do what our eyes would do when we’re standing in the gallery gazing at the work—meandering over its surface, taking in its details. This is where slow zooms and pans can really help.

Here is an example of a video that makes ample use of this method.

3. Invite close looking

Your ability to lead viewers’ eyes around a work starts with good photography and thorough image search. You will need lots of details so that you can clearly show the parts of the work and any contextual images that are being discussed in the audio.

As you edit your video, be intentional about placing these details in such a way that they match clearly to what is being said. Think about how you might point to details of an image in a classroom or museum—with video, you can do this even more clearly. For instance, if the speakers are discussing Picasso’s treatment of Gertrude Stein’s hands, you should show a closeup shot of her hands—not a shot of the whole painting. And be attentive to timing. You want those hands up on the screen just as the viewer is looking for them, even a moment’s delay will result in frustration. Conversely, putting a detail of the hands up on the screen too early may be perplexing and cause the viewer to question video production choices rather than focus on what is being discussed. Careful timing can help avoid distracting the viewer.

4. Pay attention to design

Be rigorous about using good design principles in your video, especially when you are employing multiple images or text annotations. Make sure that your text and images are aligned and that you use a standard text and layout style throughout. Be consistent.

At Smarthistory, we use Gill Sans font at 36 points for most text, and anywhere between 24 and 36 points for smaller text (we might use this for the caption on a comparison image, for instance). You can, of course, develop your own style for text based on your preferences. (You may notice that our text styling has changed over the years—in our newest videos, we use a combination of semibold and light typefaces to help improve readability.)

Pay close attention to the overall layout of each frame of the video, following the principles of good graphic design. Two key ideas to keep in mind are proximity and alignment: that is, things that are related to each other should be close together, and text and images should be aligned and visually balanced both in relation to one another, and within the negative space of the background.

5. Minimize distractions

Though we pack our videos with as much information as possible, we think carefully about what might be confusing for viewers and try to address potential problems by making everything clear and concise.

We try hard to make sure that text is succinct: short enough to be clear and helpful, without drawing too much attention away from what is being said. We only have text on screen when the term or concept in the text is actually being discussed in the audio. 

Movement and transitions between images can help viewers stay engaged, but they can also be intrusive if they are overused. Beware of using too many zooms and pans in a row, or using zooms and pans that are so fast that viewers can’t see the image well. You don’t want to make anyone dizzy.

Tip: Do not cut or transition between two images that are very alike.

For instance, if we were showing a closeup of Gertrude Stein’s face, we wouldn’t dissolve to another closeup of her face, framed slightly differently. We would dissolve to either a wide shot, a closeup of something else, or a totally different image.

Here are some examples of what not to do:

And here are some examples of what to do:

Now that you know what to show in your video, you can learn how to edit your video using Screenflow.

Cite this page as: Dr. Naraelle Hohensee, Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Principles of Smarthistory video production," in Smarthistory, June 14, 2018, accessed December 15, 2018,