Making Movies: Copying Old Home Movies to DVD

Barbara Streisand once sang: "Misty water-colored memories, of the way we were." I've always thought that she was referring to the thousands of videotapes of old home movies that are stuck in people's closets, slowly fading as they wait for someone to pull them out and copy them to DVD. But it's not difficult to turn those water-colored memories into DVDs that you can share with friends and family.

Products such as the $90 ADS DVD Xpress or the $80 Pinnacle DVC90 include most of the things necessary to transfer videos from old tapes to DVD: You just need a player for the old videotape and a PC with a rewritable DVD drive.

These products are simple to use. Typically, they include a small device to which you attach your camcorder or VCR at one end and your PC (via USB) at the other. The device digitally encodes the analog video from the camcorder or VCR, then sends the resulting digital video to the PC, where software from the package captures and writes the video to DVD. You can even edit the video before you burn it, removing the boring bits and adding menus and background music. But you do need to bear a few things in mind during the process. Here are my tips for getting the best quality when copying your home movies to DVD.

Good Equipment Matters

Get the best analog video player and cables you can, and test them before using them on irreplaceable old footage. Let's say you've got a valuable home video, the only existing footage of a long-deceased family member. Here's what you don't want to do: Stick it in a VCR that's been sitting in the attic for years, serving as a couch for your cat. Because if you do--surprise, surprise--that old player could chew up the videotape, destroying the movie.

Old videotapes should be treated like old photographs, with care and a gentle touch. Remember that every time you play a video, you could easily destroy it. So before you play an old tape on your old VCR, test it with a tape that you don't mind losing. And think about getting hold of a better player: Many video dealers will rent you a professional-level player that is less likely to damage the tape and may produce better results. These players can also be useful if your video is in an older format that conventional players don't support. You might be able to pick up a second-hand VCR on EBay, but make sure that it was well-maintained and serviced before you buy.

Don't skimp on the cables that connect the analog player to the capture device, either: a good set of cables will preserve the signal, which means better-looking video and better sounding audio.

Capture High-Quality Video

Save the video at the highest quality possible. Most devices that capture analog video and convert it to a digital format offer a variety of different settings, from high quality to low. The lower the quality, the more compressed the video is and the less room it will take on your hard drive. But think about this: You're taking what may already be a low-quality video image (old tapes produce notoriously bad video) and compressing it in the conversion to digital format, thereby further degrading the image quality.

Bottom line: Don't overly compress a signal that is already of low quality. Capture the video at the highest-quality setting the program offers. If you're short on drive space, either work in small chunks by capturing and burning short clips, one at a time, or buy a bigger hard drive.

You'll also want to write to DVD at the highest quality possible. Much like the software that manages the capture process, the software that writes the video to DVD will also offer you various quality settings. You might be tempted to use a lower setting--again to save space, because you'll be able to fit more video onto a disc. Don't do it. The highest-quality setting will produce video that is closest to the original, and that's what you want. Typically this will limit you to 30 minutes of video per single-layer disc. However, recordable DVDs are cheap--around $2 each--so you won't save that much money by squeezing your video onto one disc instead of two, and it does make a big difference in quality.

Use High-Quality Media

You want to create copies of your movies that will last, so don't skimp on the discs that will hold them. Buy brand-name discs with decent cases instead of the cheap ones on sale at your local drugstore.

Delkin's new DVDs

Delkin, for example, has just launched a line of DVDs that it claims will last for 100 years--by which time we'll probably be able to download memories directly into our cyber-brains.

In the meantime, use decent discs that will last, and store them properly. For tips on picking the best media, read Melissa Perenson's May "Burning Questions" column.

Archive the Tape

Never throw out the original. You might think that once you've copied a tape to DVD, you can throw it out. But think of it this way: Would you destroy your original family photos because you've had copies made? Of course you wouldn't, and you should treat your original videotapes as the prized family heirlooms they are.

Once you've copied your old videos, save the originals in a safe place so that you still have them if your copy fails or can't be read. The Association of Moving Image Archivists offers some great guidelines on storing videotapes. And when new technology comes along that offers better quality (such as the next generation of DVD), you can make an even better copy than the one you create now.

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