Somewhere in your house is a drawer full of videotapes — aging home movies shot with a big, bulky camcorder that may not even work anymore. You haven’t watched these movies in years, but all this talk about the digital hub and iLife has got you thinking, “Why not transfer those old videos to the Mac and burn them to DVDs?”
Good thinking. Videotapes deteriorate over time. Heat, humidity, and improper storage take their toll on tapes, decaying the magnetic particles that represent your child’s first steps. By digitizing that old footage now, you can effectively stop the deterioration in its tracks.
Better still, if you own Apple’s iLife suite and a SuperDrive-equipped Mac, you can use iMovie and iDVD to enhance and share your footage for all to enjoy. You can cut the scenes that seemed important then but are snooze-inducing now, add music and narration, create chapter markers to allow fast access to important scenes, and then burn it all to multiple DVDs, so that everyone in the family can have a copy.
Transferring old film and video to DVD can be a time-consuming process — but it’s well worth the effort. This step-by-step guide will show you how to get set up and what to do with the movies once they’re on your Mac.
Set Up Your Transfer Station
Before you can transfer footage from an old videotape to your Mac, you’ll have to convert the tape’s analog signal into digital data that iMovie can use. Here’s your equipment list:
A Video Deck
The first thing you need is a VCR or a camcorder that can play back your original tapes. If your VCR is showing its age — for example, if it suffers from poor playback or frequent tracking problems — consider springing for a new one. The improvement in video quality will be worth the investment. If possible, get a VCR that supports S-Video output; this option is more expensive, but it produces a sharper picture than the alternative, composite video.
If your tapes are in an obsolete format, such as Betamax, and if your old camcorder no longer works, you can try looking for a replacement on eBay. However, you’ll get better results by sending your tapes to a professional transfer service (see below for “Transferring Film and Other Relics”). Have the tapes transferred to MiniDV format, and then use a MiniDV camcorder to import the footage into your Mac.
You also need a device that can convert the analog signal coming from your VCR or old camcorder into digital data. You have two options here: a MiniDV camcorder or an analog-to-DV converter box.
Most current MiniDV camcorders offer a pass-through mode, which converts incoming analog video into digital data, and then transfers that data to your Mac via a FireWire cable.
You’ll probably have to adjust some menu settings to access your camcorder’s pass-through mode. On many Canon camcorders, for example, you must open the VCR menu and turn on the AV To DV Out setting. In some cases, you may also have to remove the camcorder’s MiniDV cassette. Check your camera’s manual for specific instructions.
If your MiniDV camcorder doesn’t provide a pass-through mode, you can still use it. Simply dub your old tapes onto the camcorder’s MiniDV tape, and then import the MiniDV footage into your Mac. This process takes longer than just converting the data — you have to copy the entire tape before you can even begin importing footage — but it offers a significant advantage. When you’re done, you’ll have a complete MiniDV backup of your original tape. And because you have a digital backup of your footage, you can be more selective when importing scenes from your movie. If you decide you want to add more footage later, you can simply import it from the MiniDV tape rather than reconnect your entire transfer station.
If you don’t own a MiniDV camcorder, your second option is to purchase an analog-to-DV converter such as the $199 Datavideo DAC-100 (
). This stand-alone device mimics a camcorder’s pass-through mode but costs significantly less than a MiniDV camcorder.
An Extra Hard Drive
The last thing you’ll need is a place to store your digital data. Digital video inhales disk space at a rate of about 200MB per minute. This means you’ll need around 12GB of space for every hour of footage you import. If you don’t have that much space to spare, consider purchasing an additional hard drive. My advice: think big. A 200GB external FireWire hard drive costs less than $300 and will give you enough room for hours of video. It also serves as an excellent archival medium for completed projects.
Making the Connection
To import the footage from old videotapes into your Mac, you’ll need a MiniDV camcorder with pass-through features or an analog-to-digital converter.
To set up your transfer station, connect your VCR’s video output A to the video input of your camcorder or converter box. If your hardware supports an S-Video connection, use that instead of composite video.
Next, run audio cables from your VCR’s audio outputs to the audio inputs of your camcorder or converter box b. Finally, connect the camcorder’s or converter box’s FireWire jack to the FireWire jack on your Mac C. If you’re using a MiniDV camcorder to convert your video, you may need to adjust a menu setting to activate its pass-through features. Once everything is connected, turn on each device, open a new iMovie project, and begin importing your footage.
Transferring Film and Other Relics
If your family memories are preserved on film rather than on videotape, you’ll need a little extra help getting them into iMovie and onto a DVD.
One low-budget option is to project the movies onto a wall or screen and use a tripod-mounted video camera to record the image as the movie plays. However, I don’t recommend this. In most cases, the resulting footage suffers from severe flickering and poor color balance.
The best way to transfer film is to send it to a professional transfer service that uses telecine or film chain equipment, which more accurately preserves the color and picture quality of your footage. Most services will clean and condition your old film before transferring it, to restore as much of its original beauty as possible. Some companies even offer transfer services for obsolete video formats, such as Betamax.
I sent some old 8mm movies to Novato Video Transfer (www.novatovideotransfer.com) in Novato, California, and I got great results. The company charges 20 cents per foot, with a $40 minimum setup charge — a fairly typical fee for this type of job.
Some companies offer to transfer movies directly to DVD discs. Avoid this option if you want to edit your old footage. Instead, have your movies transferred to MiniDV tape and then use a camcorder to bring that footage into the Mac.