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A tale of turning old camcorder tapes into DVDs

by Kiwipeter / December 28, 2009 4:01 PM PST

A tale of turning old camcorder tapes into DVDs

This is really a follow-on from the question posted a few weeks ago about the burning DVDs from a camcorder. At the time I didn't have ay time to write a response but it's been nagging me and it's wet here in New Zealand this Christmas - so here it is - the tale of myself, a camcorder and some DVDs

Starting some two years, I decided to convert our video tapes of our family into DVDs. I wanted to be able to break all the separate recordings on the video tape into separate clips, each one played from the selection of a menu item on the DVD. This would allow our teenagers to see what they were like when they were small, and they were genuinely excited this.

The process of getting from that point to our current set of DVDs has been tortuous, with plenty of false steps and a good deal of research along the way, not helped by the fact that was reluctant to spend much money (although as you will see I spent more than I expected). I thought I would write this little essay to help others who may be in the same situation.

The Analog Issue
The first problem I ran into was that my camcorder footage was analog. Specifically I had analog Hi-8 tapes, a tape format licenced by Sony with tape which is (you guessed it) 8mm wide. As a matter of interest, there are two other kinds of analog tapes; the Panasonic VHS-C, and an older version of Hi-8, called Video-8.

Initially I tried to pull the files onto my PC using a trick supported by my video card called VIVO (Video In/Video Out). I had no end of problems with this approach. I found I had to install special drivers called WDM drivers, and that I was having troubles with dropped frames, and this is where I ran into my first decision point.

This was that I was like a man trying to hose the garden; the moment any obstruction occurred water went everywhere. Because the video data is being delivered from the camera to the computer in a constant stream, and because there is a lot of it, if there are any interruptions or problems with the computer issues occur. Usually these issues manifest themselves as dropped frames, so the picture quality degrades. Related to this, the analog data needs to be converted to a digital format. If the computer is required to do this task, problems are likely to arise with the continuous receipt of video footage. Even powerful computers (and you need a powerful computer) have glitches from time to time. Almost nothing is more frustrating than converting 90 minutes of analog film into digital format and having it fail in the last 10 minutes. It?s even more frustrating if you miss it until you have started editing the tape.

The resolution to this problem was made easier because the tape transport mechanism on my old camcorder failed due to constant restarts. I found that for a while in the 1990s Sony made a range of cameras that used digital 8mm tapes as well as the analog tapes. The beauty of these was that you could put the analog tapes into the same cassette unit of the camera and then the hardware in the camera both automatically converted the analog data into digital data, and gave you control over the camera from the computer. Fantastic! At one stroke all the fiddling and faddling was removed. I decided to buy my way out of the problem and bought a second-hand Sony digital camcorder for $300, reasoning that it would also act a new family camcorder.

Today there are ?black boxes? on the market at quite reasonable prices that will take the analog data in one end and output it as digital through a USB port. If I couldn?t get my hands on one of the Sony digital tape cameras, I would definitely get one of these gadgets. I would never try again to convert analog to digital on the PC ? it?s just too hard.

Of course, if all your video footage is digital already, all the effort mentioned above is irrelevant. Lucky person that you are, you can just plug in your cable and suck the film footage across. However, at this point you run into another problem, which I call the dreaded format issue.

The dreaded format issue
The dreaded format issue is that video files come in two types; somewhat compressed, and very compressed. (This is why you should not throw away your original analog tapes). Somewhat compressed files are called AVI files. AVI files can be visualised as being just like movies; each frame is converted to a JPEG image, just like the photos in a digital camera, and just like a movie they take up lots of hard drive space. A good rule of thumb is 4-5 minutes to a gigabyte of disk space. Very compressed files use all sorts of cunning schemes and can store many more minutes to a gigabyte of disk space. Very compressed files may be called WMA, DIVX or MP4 files. This gets really tricky ? some software only supports some file types and so on.

Clearly the only person who can decide whether you wish to work with AVI files or a more compressed format is yourself. However, my advice is to stick to AVI files. They are the lowest common denominator, everything supports AVI, and you are likely to get the best quality from it when you burn your DVD, as there are likely to be the least issues from reworking the compression schemes.

The key issue with AVI files is that relative to other forms of compression they need lots and lots of hard disk space. Especially as you will end up needing double the disk space because when you start cutting out clips. But disk drives are cheap now. I my own case I purchased a 320Gig drive for at the time $160, of course these days that buys a terabyte of disk.

If you go for the more compressed format such as MP4, you will need an editing tool that handles these kinds of format. They tend to be more sophisticated and expensive. Also, when you re-encode to the DVD, you will be encoding from a compressed format to another compressed format; quality may suffer.

One key advantage of using the MP4 format is that it would have been less work if I had converted the whole file to the MP4 format and instead of creating clips as separate files on the disk had created chapters within the file. I understand that this is what many iustry professionals do. It takes less time, because you are not waiting while the AVI clips are created, and a lot less hard disk space. However, this seemed too clever and hard to me, and seems to require high-end tools costing several hundred dollars to do properly. So I didn?t do that. Instead I took the low-tech road of creating separate AVI files as clips from the master AVI file.

Things that are not decisions
There are some things that are not decisions, just stuff you need to know. In particular you need to know the format of the original camcorder ? whether NTSC or PAL, and if PAL what flavour of PAL, these should be in the specifications of the camera. Mostly camcorder PAL is the best PAL, which is to say 25 frame per second at 720 * 576. If you have digital input generally the software can work all this out.

I used Windows MovieMaker to cut up the tape files into separate clips in the AVI format. I found MovieMaker very easy to use, there are lots of books and online help about it, it is very reliable and it supports a number of nice effects. It is free from Microsoft for XP and also Vista. Of course, this meant I was chewing up my hard drive space at quite a rate: 20 Gig for the source AVI file, and a bit over 20 Gig for the 21 AVI files. So about 40 Gig for 100 minutes of tape.

At this point I had lots of smaller AVI files each containing a clip and no way to create a DVD. I could have borrowed a friend?s PC which ran Vista, and used the DVD making facility on it. However, this only supports one sub-menu, and I needed more given the quantity of my source AVI files. So Vista was out. I wasn?t prepared to spend much money, and also I wanted the very best DVD quality that I could get, after putting all this time and effort into it.

That meant finding some software that could create DVDs. There are quite a few of these, generally costing around $50, which was within my budget. After reading some reviews, the particular one I chose was Sony DVD Architect Studio, mostly because it uses the MainConcept codec to render DVDs so gives very good quality. It also has lots of features, but is not the easiest programme to learn, and the documentation is basic to put it mildly.

I downloaded it and burned my first DVD: it was terrible, after so much work it was heart-breaking. I went on-line to check the FAQs and read that re-writable media is not recommended; also I had a program called Roxio DLA on my system which makes the DVD drive look like a hard drive which can cause problems. I got rid of the program, changed the media and tried again. This time I had perfect results. Triumph!

So my quick and easy exercise in building DVDs cost me in the end around $500. The end results are really nice. I downloaded a free programme called CDCoverCreator which did a really nice job on the covers, and the result looks really good. I hope this story is of interest to other people. Best wishes!

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