By Steven Kantner, Digital Asset Coordinator
Too much time on your hands during the pandemic? Digitize your old home videos before it’s too late!
Staying at home during this period of COVID-19 has allowed many of us to appreciate movie watching at home. Now may be a great time to consider digitizing your old home video movies that have been collecting dust in the closet. Unfortunately, we are facing the obsolescence of videotape and VCRs (Video Cassette Recorders). Those of you who may have bought Betamax in the 1980s are already familiar with the difficulties of an out-of-date format. But the more common VHS format, and the dozen or so camcorder formats that came and went since the 1990s are to the point where they will become unplayable due to either the tape degradation or the loss of working playback equipment and parts to repair them.
There are several approaches to digitizing your videos. One is to send them out to a service and let the professionals do all the work. This service is provided by companies ranging from small internet startups to well-known large corporations. If you are among the many who could never program the VCR’s clock, then this might be your best option. But, if you like to tinker and happen to have an old VCR to dust off, or know family or friends who do, you might be able to do this yourself. Here are three different options to try depending on what type of media and equipment you have available.
TIP: Different video formats have different ways to protect the tape from being recorded over. Research your videotape formats and do whatever you need to your tapes to protect your video. VHS tapes have a tab on the back, just like audiocassettes do on the top edge. Simply break that tab to prevent an “oops” moment! Do this regardless if you are digitizing the tapes yourself or sending them out to a service! You can see the wide variety of formats here in the Texas Commission on the Arts Videotape Identification and Assessment Guide: https://www.arts.texas.gov/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/video.pdf
OPTION I: VHS-DVD combination player transfer
If you already have one of these combo units around, you are in luck. These VHS players were popular in the 2000s and may be hiding in your closet, under the bed, or buried in boxes in your garage. If you don’t have one, you might look around at thrift stores, yard sales, and other outlets that may have old electronics. These units were already designed to convert your home video to digital video for DVD. DVDs were considered long-lived at the time they came out, but the writable and rewritable disks are not permanent and are prone to lose data over time – in as little as 10 years! They are not good preservation media and professional archivists don’t rely on DVD or CD media for sole copies of data in long-term archival digital storage environment. However, DVDs will work as a bridge to get your video into a computer.
What you need:
- A VHS-DVD combination player
- Blank DVD-R or DVD-RW disk media
- Computer with a DVD drive (internal or external)
- Free DVD video extraction software (such as Handbrake or VLC Media Player)
With the VHS-DVD combo unit, you can record your video onto the DVD, sometimes referred to as “dubbing” in device manuals. This DVD will be formatted to be played on a standard DVD video player. Follow the instruction manual for the unit to properly create and finalize the disk. Once complete, you will need a computer with a DVD drive attached or built-in (please note many computers today don’t include these drives, so you may need to use an older computer or borrow a USB DVD drive from someone). You can’t just drag and drop video from a DVD video disk – you will need to have software like the two in the list above that can read the disk’s data structure and repackage the video as a stand-alone file. Once you have extraction software installed (a.k.a., ripping software), you can copy the video (a.k.a., ripping) from the DVD and store it on your hard drive. A simple search online should uncover plenty of tutorials about the process for the software you choose to install. Remember, there is free open-source software that can do this, so you shouldn’t need to pay for any software to extract from the DVD.
In the professional archives field, best practice is to capture old analog video at its original resolution and uncompressed, which results in very large files not practical for most. For preserving your home movies, save it at the original resolution – here in the US that is NTSC at 720×480 pixels. DVD video already uses video compression to reduce its data footprint. Your best bet for video compression during extraction is to choose H.264 for the video and MP3 for the audio. This should provide you with the best balance between image quality and a file size. The final video file will likely have an extension of .mp4, although .mov or .avi may be found as well depending on your operating system and software.
TIP: Always inspect your media. If there is mold on it, you probably need to find someone to send it to for cleaning and digitization. Mold exposure can cause medical issues so don’t risk it at home. Look not only at the outside of the cassette but look at the tape pack through the window of the cassette. Any white or gray fuzz growing on the tape pack is a bad sign – it may also be yellow, green, black, or even dark purple in color. You do not want to contaminate all your other tapes by playing a moldy one in your VCR!
image: mold growing on tape
OPTION II: MiniDV camcorder transfer
If you have a VCR and are fortunate to still have a MiniDV camcorder, you can use the camcorder to pass the VCR video to your computer. Keep in mind, MiniDV camcorders typically use Firewire cables (a.k.a., DV) to connect to your computer.
For those with newer Apple computers, adaptors can be found for Firewire to Thunderbolt. For those with Windows computers, you may be able to find Firewire expansion cards or other video capture interfaces that allow for Firewire (or DV as they may be labeled) connections for your PC. Some interfaces have additional inputs making this MiniDV camera method unnecessary, so keep that in mind if you decide to purchase a video capture interface.
Image: firewire cable
What you need:
- A VHS player, or player for whatever format you have
- Apple computer with Thunderbolt and Firewire adapters, or Windows computer with Firewire add-on card or USB video interface with DV connection
- Movie software (Apple’s iMovie or Windows Movie Maker)
Once you have the MiniDV camcorder’s DV/Firewire cable plugged in, you should be able to find an AV input on the camcorder. Often camcorders have a miniature 1/8” jack for the AV input, similar to the small headphone jacks you are likely familiar with. The cable likely came with the camera, and it breaks out into three RCA connectors (sometimes referred to as “phono plugs” in consumer manuals) – one for video, one for audio left, and one for audio right. These RCA connectors are the common connections you find on VCRs and DVD players.
You can connect your VCR output to the RCA connections and plug the minijack into the camcorder. The camcorder should have a function selection on it that allows you to operate it in an “AV” mode instead of camera mode. This allows it to see the video from the VCR, convert them to a digital signal, and output them to the computer. If you have the camcorder in the correct setting, you usually should be able to see the video from the videotape playing on the LCD screen built into the camcorder. iMovie software on an Apple, or Windows Movie Maker software on a Windows PC, should be able to see the camera device and capture the digital video stream to your local computer. Review the section above for best settings for saving your files.
OPTION III: Video capture
Alternatively, if you don’t have a MiniDV player or the VHS-DVD combo deck, big box stores and online retailers carry USB based video interfaces that provide RCA connections for audio and video, S-video (an improved connection for video you might choose to use if you have it on your old playback equipment). These vary in quality and cost. Typically, the adage “you get what you pay for” is often true, but one of these should not set you back too much for capturing basic VHS quality video. If you have a lot of home video you would like to digitize yourself, this small investment may be worthwhile.
TIP: It’s best to keep your original tapes safe after digitization just in case you need to access them again in the near future. Always store your tapes in an air-conditioned environment if possible. The best place is a closet, and of course avoid any “wet” areas such as a bathroom, kitchen, laundry room, etc. Keep the tapes off the floor at least several inches. A water leak will easily ruin your tapes.
Trouble with Tapes
You might have your old VCR all set up, along with your box of home videos you pulled from the garage. Excitedly, you put the first tape in, and after a short while the image starts looking terribly crooked and distorted and the audio might have a distinct odd distortion to it – or the tape just grinds the player to a halt and stops playing. Hit stop immediately! Your tape may be suffering from binder degradation. Forcing your VCR to play a degraded tape can damage both the tape and the VCR. Tape is a plastic base film with a coating to store the magnetic recordings. These coatings absorb moisture and begin to breakdown over time. Maybe your decision to store the tapes in your hot garage or attic was not such a “hot” idea after all! Tapes need dry and cool conditions to survive a long time – and ideally should be stored in a rewound state and vertically on their side.
Certain brands commonly have binder degradation. Sometimes you can identify a tape with degradation by smell, but it is not 100% foolproof. A very crayon-like waxy odor may indicate that it is suffering from problems. However, some tapes may smell slightly when first removed from their sleeve, yet playback fine. Some may not playback fine but do not smell.
There is a way to remediate the binder degradation, but only temporarily. In the professional digitization world, we do what we call “baking” – heating a tape over low temperatures for a long time. This temporarily cures the “stickiness” of the tape and allows it to perform better on playback – typically for a few weeks only. After a few weeks it will likely revert to an unplayable state and would need to be baked once more to be played again.
IMPORTANT: This “baking” is NOT something you can do with your home oven –do NOT put audiotapes, videotapes, OR motion picture film in your home oven! You can damage or destroy the media, or worse you may start a fire!
The idea of tape “baking” is to dehydrate – not to cook. Sometimes just adding the tape to a sealed airtight plastic bag with desiccant (that stuff you find in boxed products that states “Do not eat”) to absorb the moisture can work. But often tapes are too far gone and need more extreme measures. Professional archives like ours often have laboratory ovens that can accurately maintain temperature and perform this treatment.
Image: laboratory oven
There are some devices that allow you to perform this at home. Less expensive food dehydrators such as NESCO and Excalibur brands have been used to dehydrate tape. Some internet searches will turn up discussion forums on the use of these for tapes. It is NOT recommended to use a dehydrator for both food and tapes, and certainly not at the same time! The chemicals that leach out of plastics and tape coatings may not be something you want to eat! And you do not want to contaminate your tapes with byproducts of food either. A dehydrator for this purpose should have an internal fan to move air and should have a temperature control. I have used an Excalibur dehydrator at home to bake my own tapes at times when needed and successfully digitized them afterward.
Baking tapes is a lot like Texas BBQ, low and slow. If you find you need to do this for a videotape, keep the temperature no more than 130 degrees Fahrenheit – and bake for 12-24 hours. If the tape has been stored in humid conditions for a long time, it may take even longer. Before placing tapes in a dehydrator, test it over time with a quality oven thermometer to see how accurate the device’s thermostat is.
IMPORTANT: Do NOT heat these tapes at higher temperatures or you risk melting the tape and/or plastic components! And again, NEVER put motion picture film in a dehydrator. This suggestion only pertains to videotapes!
Your video is digitized. Now what?
Having your video digitized is great – unless your hard drive fails, and you lose your data. Then you are back to square one. It’s best to follow the LOCKSS (Lots Of Copies Keeps Stuff Safe) concept – keeping a digital copy on your hard drive, a backup drive, and on the cloud provides you some extra security in case of a drive failure or other catastrophic loss of the physical storage device. You should have at least three copies of your digital files, and one copy should not be physically stored near the others.
Now all that is left to do is watch and enjoy!