From VHS to DVD

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Prepare for Import

Videotape is a relatively fragile medium. Any irregularity in temperature or reel tension can cause playback problems or, worse, damage the tape. So before you press the play button on your VCR and begin importing footage, make sure your videotape is in the best possible condition.

Acclimate Your Tapes If you've stored your videotapes in an unusually hot or cold environment -- such as an attic or an unheated closet -- bring them into the room where you'll be working and let them sit for a few hours. Large swings in humidity or temperature can cause moisture to condense within a videocassette. And playing a tape in that state could damage it and your VCR.

Also avoid embarking on a video project if the weather is humid and the room you're working in isn't air-conditioned. In high humidity, videotape tends to adhere to a VCR's spinning heads. The extra friction can cause the tape and the heads to wear out prematurely.

Shuttle Your Tapes Once you've acclimated a tape, fast-forward it to the end and then rewind it to the beginning. This process, called stacking, exercises the videocassette mechanism and restores tension on the tape reels, alleviating some of the problems with aging videotape.

Check Your Tracking You're likely to run into tracking problems when working with aging videotapes and VCRs. These picture and sound distortions occur when the VCR's heads fail to read the critical control track located along one edge of the tape. Before you begin importing video, play a few minutes of your tape and adjust your VCR's tracking feature to optimize playback quality.

Developing an Import Strategy

If your home-movie tapes are anything like mine, they probably contain a grab bag of footage spanning several months or even years. Before you begin importing, take a few minutes to plan out how you'll organize this diverse video footage. Developing a clear strategy now may prevent frustration when it's time to create your DVD.

First, consider how you want to present the movies on your finished DVD. For example, if you're going to include several different events on the same DVD, you may want to give each event its own DVD-menu button. In this case, you'll create a separate iMovie project for each event.

On the other hand, if you prefer to group similar events -- to include several years' worth of family vacations on a single DVD, for example -- you might be better off importing all your vacation footage into one iMovie project and then using chapter markers to provide convenient access to individual trips. This method requires fewer individual iMovie projects; however, DVD viewers will have to navigate through two menus -- first selecting the iMovie project and then selecting an individual chapter within the project -- before they can watch a movie.

Admittedly, dividing your videotape footage between multiple iMovie projects can be labor intensive. If you'd rather dump your old footage into one iMovie project and then sort things out later, you can. Just note that this approach can make editing the video and creating a DVD more cumbersome. For example, if you want part of a movie to have its own DVD menu, you'll need to export that footage and then import it into a new iMovie project.


Import Your Video

You're now ready to begin the transfer process. Open iMovie and create a new project for your imported footage. By default, iMovie stores projects in the Movies folder. If you want to save disk space by storing your footage on an external hard drive, then save your iMovie project on that drive. You can import all the footage into one iMovie project. But if your videotape contains a mishmash of events, creating separate projects for each type of footage may make more sense -- separating your vacation footage from holiday gatherings, for example (see "Developing an Import Strategy").

Switch to iMovie's Import mode by clicking on the camera icon located under the Monitor. When you're ready, press the play button on your VCR or camcorder. As the tape plays, you can watch the footage in the Monitor. When you come to a part you want to capture for your movie, click on iMovie's Import button or press the spacebar. Click on it a second time (or press the spacebar again) to stop importing.

Managing Your Space If some of the video footage is useless -- for example, blurry images shot through a moving car's windshield -- you can save disk space by not importing it. But don't be too selective. I recommend erring on the safe side by importing even those scenes that don't seem especially interesting. Times and people change -- a scene that seems mundane today may be utterly priceless tomorrow. If you don't import it now, there's a good chance you never will.

Controlling Your Clips iMovie limits the file size of each individual clip to 2GB -- which translates to exactly 9 minutes and 28 seconds of footage. If you simply let your tape play while importing, iMovie will automatically create a new clip each time this limit is reached -- regardless of whether that happens in the middle of a conversation or at a convenient scene break. You won't lose any footage when the new clip is made, but you'll need to piece the individual clips back together in iMovie's timeline to regain the scene's continuity.

You can make the editing process easier by deciding for yourself where each clip begins and ends. For example, you may prefer to put each scene in its own clip, even if it includes only a minute or two of footage. This approach lets you break up the action more naturally, so it's easier to reorganize your scenes later.

Dealing with Scan Lines As you import video into iMovie, you'll notice a thin band of scan lines at the very bottom of the video frame. Don't worry about it. Because TV sets crop off the outer edges of a video frame, these scan lines won't appear when you play your DVD back on a TV set.

They will be visible, however, if viewers watch your DVD on their computers. If you anticipate this happening, you may want to consider cropping out those scan lines. Stupendous Software makes a free iMovie plug-in that crops your video frames ( But be aware that when you apply cropping, iMovie must re-render every frame of the video. This process not only takes a lot of time but also doubles the amount of disk space required for your project.

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