Don’t leave your most important video memories stranded in a box in the garage. Here’s how to digitise your home movies. By John Herrman
As video content gets old, it gains sentimental value. As film and video media get old, they fall apart. This is the paradox at the centre of our movie collections: it’s the priceless images – the first steps, the trips down the aisle – that have greatest risk of loss.
Reel-to-reel 8 mm tape has a typical shelf life of about 20 years, at which point the threat of magnetic instability, tape deformation and general chemical breakdown becomes unavoidable. Likewise, VHS cartridges begin to deteriorate after only a decade. Recordable CDs and DVDs, despite their apparent durability, can fall prey to oxidation after just a few years ““ data is stored on a delicate metal film at the top of the disc, not in the plastic.
Hard drives and solid-state storage won’t last forever, either, but at least they give you control. With your movie collection stored on a computer, it joins a maintainable mass of data, part of your ongoing computing experience. Once in the digital realm, movies can be copied and recopied. They can be uploaded to the cloud. Most importantly, they can be backed up.
From the garage to the hard drive
Before you get started digitising, you’ll need to assess the scale of your project. Digitising tape or film is a real-time process; it takes as long to convert it as it does to watch it. Digitally archiving more than a dozen hour-long videotapes or more than a few reels of 8 mm film is a big undertaking, so if you’re facing boxes and boxes full of dusty film, you might need to get professional help.
US services such as DigMyPics and Digital Memories will digitise a variety of film and videotape formats, including 8 mm, for a rate of about $20 per transfer. This can quickly get expensive, but you’re paying for more than just speed and ease ““ these companies are well-equipped to deal with delicate, volatile old media. They also have well-maintained playback and recording equipment designed to tolerate imperfection and deal gracefully with failure.
DigMyPics, for example, scans each reel frame by frame, projecting light through the film and on to a specially designed image sensor, ensuring consistent transfer quality. So if your home videos are both old and priceless and you haven’t viewed them in years, you should err on the side of caution; not only are your reels and cassettes weakened by age, but your vintage playback hardware probably isn’t at its best, either.
That’s not to say you can’t digitise tape and film yourself. If you know your home movies to be in decent shape and your playback hardware is in working order, digitising personal video is a uniquely gratifying personal project. Think of it less as a chore than as a chance to revisit your life’s greatest stories.
Low-tech storage media call for a low-tech conversion technique. As a consequence of their design, reel-to-reel projectors’ only output is the projection itself ““ there are no ports to plug anything into; just the projected image. The process of digitising old film, then, is really an act of re-recording.
Set up your projector in a dark room, and make sure your projection surface is smooth, white, and less than a metre wide ““ a closer projection will ensure sufficient brightness and full-colour reproduction. (If you don’t have a projector, there’s a steady supply of afforcable variable-speed models on eBay.) Set up a digital video camera ““ an HD flip-style cam or even a high-quality smartphone camera will do ““ and position it on a stable surface close to the side of the projector. Begin recording some sample footage.
It’s likely that you’ll notice some flickering in the image; this can be remedied by adjusting the speed of the projector. The perspective of the film will be slightly skewed, of course, but the effect can be minimised by cropping the frame slightly. If you are recording directly from a projector’s speaker rather than via its line output, check that your camera’s mic isn’t picking up too much mechanical noise.
The resulting footage should be clean and vivid but not necessarily without quirks. Nearly all video cameras, especially cheaper ones, meter light automatically and continuously, so the image may suffer from brief moments of overexposure. If you can manually adjust your camera’s exposure, setting it to a fixed exposure is ideal.
As with reel-to-reel film, the digitisation process for VHS and most tape-based media calls for both old and new equipment. For this inter-generational marriage, you’ll need an analogue-to-digital converter (ADC). Among the most affordable and reliable ADCs is the Elgato Video Capture dongle, a squid-like USB accessory that can be found online for under R800. It lets you connect older playback equipment ““ VCRs, camcorders ““ to your computer.
After you connect the Video Capture cable to your computer and video source, you’ll find the recording process is highly guided. Elgato’s software will prompt you to adjust the recording parameters to your liking (the H.264 video format in standard definition is generally fine) and then ask you to hit Play on the video source.
When the recording is finished, you’ll have the option to export files to iTunes or Windows Media Player. Instead, simply save them to a folder. You’ll still be able to play the files in your media player of choice, but this way they won’t get hidden deep in your computer’s file system where they might get lost or be forgotten.
Archiving, or “ripping”, DVD video is a three-click process. A free application called HandBrake, available for both PC and Mac, will automatically recognise a DVD video when the disc is inserted into the computer. Before clicking Start, select the Normal quality setting under the Regular tab on the right side of the app. The rip and conversion should take between 5 and 30 minutes and will produce an archival-quality H.264 video file.
To estimate your storage requirements, assume you need about 75 megabytes for every 10 minutes of SD footage, and 125 megabytes for every 10 minutes of HD footage. In South Africa, the cost of storage has fallen to around R1 per gigabyte, down from about R7,50 in 2005. One-terabyte external hard drives can be purchased from your local computer shop for around R1 000 and up (prices and availability were severely affected by last year’s floods in Bangkok, where most hard drives are manufactured).
HandBrake is also useful for converting digital video recordings in less common formats ““ such as Sony’s and Panasonic’s AVCHD ““ to an H.264-based .avi file, a format that will probably be far better supported into the distant future. (H.264 also plays well with current gadgets, from smart TVs to smartphones.) Make sure to change HandBrake’s conversion settings to HD for newer digital video; otherwise you’ll lose video quality.
Saving for the future
By the time you’ve finished digitising your videos, you’ll have amassed a folder full of files. Capturing the video is the hardest step of the archiving process, yes ““ but it’s not the last.
Long-term video storage in the digital age is fundamentally new. The University of Southern California Shoah Foundation Institute, which maintains a collection of more than 51 000 historically invaluable video testimonies by Holocaust survivors, recently converted its library from tape to digital video; 234 000 tapes were fed through dedicated digitisation stations, converted to digital video, and sent to be stored in a facility that looks more like a Google data centre than a library.
Although USC’s project was far bigger than any of ours, its procedures are instructive: the university didn’t just digitise its video; it backed it up.
Backing up video doesn’t necessarily mean buying a stack of new hard drives or a dedicated backup system such as Apple Time Capsule. It’s really just a matter of duplication: you haven’t really archived your video until you’ve made two independent copies of it. For newly converted videos, that can mean a number of things. You can simply store your video files on both your computer’s hard drive and an external USB hard drive, or you can upload your video files to YouTube or Vimeo, where they can be designated as Private.
Should one hard drive fail, you can immediately copy your videos to another. If, say, Google decided to shut down YouTube ““ remember, we’re thinking long-term here ““ you can re-download your videos from the site, upload them to another, or save them locally. This ongoing process guarantees more than peace of mind ““ it means that for the rest of your life, your video will be as easy to watch as it is safe.
Know your stuff: Video playback 101
You don’t spend hours converting old videos just to leave them languishing on a hard drive. Here are four ways to watch your new digital home-movie collection.
Plays > H.264, MPEG-4, DivX.
Special talents > Compatible with the .mkv format, which is common for HD video.
Plays > H.264, MPEG-4, Motion JPEG.
Special talents > Streams media from a PC with an app called StreamToMe (or, in our case, Air Video).
Plays > H.264, MPEG-4, Windows Media.
Special talents > Connects to any Windows PC with Windows Media Centre.
Plays > H.264, MPEG-4.
Special talents > Streams video from PCs running a free app called TVersity, even over 3G.
Lab test: how fast is Thunderbolt?
By Glenn Derene
Apple introduced the Thunderbolt port in 2011, but only now are we seeing a large-scale rollout of Thunderbolt peripherals. Apple says the standard is up to 20 times faster than USB 2.0. But that’s a theoretical number. How fast is it in the real world?
TEST: We transferred a 2,7 GB movie file from an SSD-equipped MacBook Air to the drive over USB 2.0 and Thunderbolt. Then we transferred the same file using a PC with an internal SSD and a USB 3.0 connection.
RESULTS: Thunderbolt is fast, but nowhere near as fast as Apple claims. Our test file took 84 seconds to transfer from our MacBook Air to our GoFlex drive over USB 2.0. The same file took 33 seconds over Thunderbolt. Despite USB 3.0’s lower speed rating (purportedly 5 gigabits per second), the file transferred in 35,2 seconds ““ close to parity with Thunderbolt.
VERDICT: Until the cost of the equipment comes down ““ the R400-plus cable is not included ““ Thunderbolt is absolutely not worth the price unless you’re routinely transferring truly huge files.