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.
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 (www.stupendous-software.com). 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.
Edit Your Movie
Once you’ve imported all your clips, you can use iMovie’s editing tools to slim down and enhance your original footage. This is your opportunity to go beyond simply preserving old footage, and to take a fresh look at the recorded events. With the help of titles, transitions, chapter markers, music, photos, and more, the possibilities for editing are almost limitless. Here are a few pointers to consider as you work:
Limit Bad Video
Analog video tends to contain a lot of noise — faint snowy fuzz that degrades picture quality. Video noise makes your movie look bad, and it encodes poorly — causing the footage on your finished DVD to look blocky. It’s especially troublesome in low-light scenes, such as shots taken indoors or around a campfire.
When importing your video, use an S-Video cable and a VCR that’s in good condition, to minimize these encoding artifacts. If your footage contains a lot of dark, noisy scenes, limit the length of video on a DVD to under one hour, so iDVD can encode the footage at a higher bit rate and minimize compression.
Split Your Clips
The first thing you’ll want to do when editing is remove any bad footage — jerky camera movements, out-of-focus shots, and so on.
In iMovie 4, you can adjust the beginning or ending of a clip simply by dragging its edges inward. Later, if you decide you want to regain some of that footage, you can pull the edges of the clip outward to restore them.
To remove a bad shot from the middle of a clip — or to edit clips in earlier versions of iMovie — drag the clip to iMovie’s timeline, position the playhead at the beginning of the offending shot, and then choose Split Video Clip At Playhead from the Edit menu. (This command is also useful for breaking up one long clip into several smaller ones.) Next, move the playhead to the last frame you want to remove and choose the command again. You should now have a single clip that contains just the unwanted shot. To send it to the cutting room floor, select it and press the delete key. Deleted scenes remain in the Trash until you empty it. However, if you think you might need the cut scene later, switch back to the clip viewer (Command-E) and drag the scene to an empty spot in the Clips pane instead of deleting it.
Add a Soundtrack
Let’s face it: most home videos sound as though they’d been recorded through a tin can. You can fix that by adding a new soundtrack that complements the action.
If your video’s original sound consisted of nothing but wind and room noise, consider removing the sound completely and playing a song from your iTunes library instead. To mute an entire video track in iMovie, deselect the box to the right of the video track in iMovie’s timeline. To mute or adjust the volume of individual clips, select the clips in the timeline and then reposition the volume slider.
Narration and commentary add a wonderful historical perspective to your old home videos. To record narration, use iMovie’s Audio pane (see “Sound Practices”). If your movie features kids who are teenagers today, for example, you might want to have them comment on the footage as it plays. Let them talk about their memories of the event and about what went on behind the scenes. You could also narrate the video yourself, talking about what it was like taking a couple of colicky kids on a cross-country road trip. (For tips on recording narration, see “Sweeten Your Sound,” Digital Hub, December 2003.)
Sprinkle in Photos
Do you have some old photos of the same event you captured on videotape? Why not add these shots to your video footage to help expand the narrative? To use old photos, scan them into your Mac, add them to iPhoto, and then import them into iMovie from the Photos pane. You can give your photos a sense of motion by using iMovie’s Ken Burns effect, which mimics the documentary trick of slowly panning across a photo while zooming in or out.
Old photos can also provide a nice backdrop for iMovie titles or iDVD menus. If you have a lot of photos that complement the video, you might want to include them on the DVD as a slide show.
Add Titles and Transitions
Titles and transitions give your movie professional polish and help ease viewers between disjointed scenes. If you come across dialogue that’s hard to understand, create subtitles. To make sure your titles won’t get cut off when played on a television, deselect the QT Margins option in iMovie’s Titles pane.
Create Chapter Markers
For videos that are more than a few minutes long, consider adding chapter markers via iMovie’s iDVD pane. Later on, when you go to burn your DVD, iDVD will use these chapter markers to create a submenu that lets viewers quickly jump to specific scenes.
Add a chapter marker whenever a key scene begins. For a vacation video, you might add a marker at the beginning of each new destination. For a video that presents several years’ worth of birthday parties, add a marker (and a title) at the beginning of each party. Your final DVD will be easier to navigate, and it will be more enjoyable to watch multiple times.
Save Some Stills
Many of iDVD’s menu themes contain drop zones — special areas into which you can drag photos or movies to customize your menu designs. If your video contains one particular scene that’s representative of the entire movie — for example, a kid blowing out birthday candles — save a still from that scene to use in a drop zone.
To do so, position iMovie’s playhead at the frame you’d like to save. Next, choose Save Frame As from the File menu and specify a name for the frame. Use the default JPEG format.
Save a Scene
You can also place a snippet of video in an iDVD drop zone — to show the entire candle-blowing incident, for example. To use a scene from your movie in a drop zone, first save your finished iMovie project. Isolate the footage you want in its own clip, and then choose Share from the File menu. Click on the QuickTime button, and choose the Full Quality DV option. Be sure to turn on the Share Selected Clips Only option. Then click on Share and give the new movie a name.
Close the iMovie project without saving your changes. (This step preserves the clip in its original, unsplit form.) Once you’re in iDVD, simply drag the short movie you just created into the drop zone.
By recording narration in iMovie, you can add new perspective to an old video. iMovie 4 includes some audio improvements that make recording narration even easier. The first of these is an audio-waveform view. When you turn on the Show Audio Track Waveforms option in iMovie’s preference pane, iMovie displays the audio track as a waveform — giving you visual representation of the rise and fall of the recorded dialogue. This helps you better match up your narration with the action on screen. In this project, for example, I was able to synchronize the transition between two different scenes a with a pause in the narration.
To eliminate competing dialogue, you may also want to lower the volume from your video track while the narration is playing. To do this, select the clip in the timeline and then click on the Edit Volume option b. You’ll notice a thin horizontal line running through your clip. Click on the line at the point where your narration begins C, and drag the control point down to lower the volume. Repeat this process (but drag the control point up) at the end of the narration to return the clip’s volume to its original level.
What’s on the Menu?
When you click on Add Chapter in iMovie’s iDVD panel, you can mark where important scenes begin (top). iDVD then uses these markers to create a submenu offering instant access to each scene (bottom).
Create Your DVD
When you’re satisfied with your edited movies, you can transfer your finished video into iDVD, customize its menus, and then burn your finished project.
Make the Move
to iDVD If you have only one iMovie project to burn, you can import it into iDVD simply by clicking on the Create iDVD Project button in iMovie’s iDVD pane. iDVD will launch and begin importing the movie. If the movie contains chapter markers, iDVD will also create a Scene Selection menu with buttons for each of the chapters.
To add more iMovie projects to your DVD, click on iDVD’s Customize button. When the Customize drawer pops out from the left side of the window, click on the Media button and choose Movies from the pop-up menu. Find the movie you want to add, and then drag its thumbnail into your DVD’s menu area. If you’ve stored your iMovie projects somewhere other than in your Movies folder — on an external hard drive, for example — you’ll need to tell iDVD where to find them. Open iDVD’s Movies preference pane and click on the Add button to specify the location of your files.
For best results, open your iDVD preference pane and choose the Best Quality option. iDVD lets you include as much as two hours of video on a disc. But you’ll get the best image quality by limiting video to an hour or less.
Customize Your Menus
iDVD includes several predesigned templates — called themes — for your DVD menus. To add one of these to your project, click on the Customize button, select Theme from the Customize drawer, and then set the Theme pop-up menu to All. Choose a theme that best represents your subject. The Projector theme, for example, is great for old movies that you’ve transferred from film.
If your theme contains a drop zone, add the still image that you saved from iMovie. Simply drag the image’s icon from the Finder into the drop zone.
You can also use an image as the background to your iDVD menu: just press the 1 key as you drag the image into the menu area.
Preview and Burn
When you’ve finished designing your DVD, click on iDVD’s Preview button to test your disc. If everything checks out, double-click on the Burn button and insert a blank DVD-R.
Note that if your DVD project takes up 4GB of disk space, you’ll need at least 8GB of free space (essentially, double the amount of your project) to burn the DVD. To gauge the size of your project, open the Status pane of iDVD’s Customize drawer.
For reliable burns, don’t use your Mac while a disc is burning. If you’re burning on a PowerBook, plug the PowerBook into the wall so it won’t run out of battery power.
When iDVD finishes encoding and burning your movies, it’ll give you the option of burning additional discs or closing the iDVD project. Even if you’re burning a DVD only for yourself, I recommend making additional copies. Discs sometimes get lost and it’d be a shame to have to do all of this again.
After all the effort you’ve put into importing and enhancing your old movies, the last thing you want is for your DVDs to become unplayable after a few years. Alas, DVD-R discs don’t last forever. To improve their reliability and longevity, don’t apply peel-and-stick labels to them. These can cause a host of problems, including jamming up the DVD player, causing the disc to spin off-balance, or damaging the DVD’s substrate. Instead, label the discs with permanent marker (such as a Sharpie). But keep your description brief — the solvents in permanent ink can damage a DVD’s substrate over time.
Verbatim offers an interesting alternative to plain DVDs. Its Digital Movie DVD-R resembles a film reel (pictured, bottom; www.verbatim.com). For users who want to give their DVD’s more panache, Epson offers a line of printers that can print directly onto the surface of a printable CD or DVD (www.epson.com).
Keep your burned DVDs in jewel cases, and store them in a cool, dark place. And consider stashing a couple of backups in a safe-deposit box.
And what about those old videotapes? If you’re like me, you can’t bear to throw them out, even if you’ve digitized them. To prolong their life, rewind them and store them vertically (like a book), with the full reel on the bottom. Store them in a cool, dry location. Fast-forward and then rewind the tapes once a year.
Archive Your Work
Once you’ve finished burning your DVDs, you’ll probably want to free up the hard-drive space that your project is taking up.
If you have an external FireWire hard drive, consider archiving your digital media on it. Drag the folders containing your iMovie and iDVD project files onto the hard drive, and then delete them from your system.
If you own a MiniDV camcorder, you can also use iMovie to export your edited movie back to a MiniDV tape. You won’t be able to save your iDVD projects this way. But if you decide to burn additional discs later, you can reimport your completed movie into iMovie with no loss in picture quality. Another option — one that does let you save your iDVD projects — is the $45 DV Backup, from coolatoola (www .coolatoola.com); it lets you back up any data to a compatible DV camcorder (see “Helping Hands,” Mac Gems, November 2003).
The Last Word
Enhancing and sharing old video or film footage can be a lot of work, especially if you take the time to edit scenes and add additional elements. But it can also be a fun and rewarding exercise — a way to relive old memories and preserve them for the future. That’s what I’d call a labor of love.