Digitizing Precious Memories
08 Feb 2007 | By: Kristine Kisky For: | The Columbian
It’s not your fault. After all, it was state of the art back in the day. In fact, you were the envy of friends and family when you proudly showed them your first VHS camcorder. You dutifully lugged the behemoth to recitals, reunions and Little League games, capturing precious memories on tape for posterity.
Later, maybe you sprung for one of those dandy compact camcorders when they came out. It was worth the investment; You didn’t have shoulder and neck pain after a photo gig, and certainly didn’t miss packing a camera bag the size of a suitcase.
Fast-forward a few years. The digital age dawned, and those treasured tapes are now stacked on a closet shelf, gathering dust. Over time, heat and humidity take a toll, decaying the tape’s magnetic particles that captured life’s milestones. “There are some excellent memories” fading away, observes Dave Brown of Keepsake Family Tree Video. “Get that stuff off those tapes and get it onto DVDs,” he urges. “Time and technology and things just move along. You’ve got to keep up with the technology.”
Working out of their well-equipped home studio in East Portland, Brown and wife Lorelei Young transfer images from old film and tape into the digital age. Often, the footage is edited and enhanced in the process-perhaps by adding a soundtrack or by interspersing still shots with the memories in motion.
Who is keeping Keepsake busy these days? “It’s all these people who have had the camcorder tapes,” Brown reports. In some cases, “They were the ones in the early stages who had 8 millimeter (film cameras) and then came Hi-8 and technology moved along. Now, they no longer have their camcorder, now they want to preserve (the tapes) some how. They want to play it. They want to watch these things. It’s time to get it on a media so they can show their grandkids, so the grandkids can see when their parents were young,” Brown reasons.
Camcorder tapes aren’t the only treasures gathering dust. “There are old films shot back in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, sitting in shoeboxes,” says Brown. “All of these old memories are just tucked away, stacked in boxes where nobody gets a chance to see them. Those can be transferred to DVD as well.”
Splice and Dice
When upgrading from tape to DVD, it’s a good time to take stock of just what’s on those tapes. “A lot of times, these things are never marked. We all thought we’d never forget what’s on these things,” says Brown.
Another logical step is making some cuts to the taped footage. An interesting phenomenon occurred with the advent of the camcorder, says Brown. “Back in the old days, shooting 8 millimeter and Super 8, people were a little more particular. That was costing money (for the film and processing). They took eight to 10 second clips. It was called a motion picture and that’s what it was. They were just taking the quick clips. Now, in the video age, you let your camcorder go and blah, blah, blah,” he laments. Tapes are relatively inexpensive, “So people just let that camcorder go. They’ve got two hours of stuff, but they’ve only got 10 to 12 minutes of good, workable stuff.”
In most cases, says Brown, “You don’t need to see the whole birthday party. There’s an editing process that needs to go on.” Brown asks his customers for cues about what to edit. “We weren’t invited to the party, so we don’t know what’s important (to them),” he quips.
Sometimes Keepsake Family Tree Video helps people whittle away at the extraneous footage by making a time-coded copy of their tape. The customer then views the tape, making notes of what they want to keep and the extra they can live without. Or, without a time-coded tape, if people have a counter on their camcorder or VCR, they can make notes that way, but it’s always good to include visual cues with counter numbers, as the calibration on different machines can make for discrepancies in numbers, notes Brown.
When editing old footage, what doesn’t make the cut? “Old boyfriends, things in the past people don’t want their new spouse to know about,” Brown says with a laugh. “People will say, ‘I don’t really want him or her in there, can you cut them out?’ We say, ‘By all means we can ixnay the old boyfriend.’ ? We can also incorporate photos with slides, add the music, special effects and titles, make a nice piece on their family as years went by.”
Often, a graduation will prompt people to get old tapes in order. “When their child graduates from high school or college, a parent will want us to put together a piece showing that child’s life, showing what they’ve done, what they’ve accomplished.”
Easy Does It
Transferring tapes to DVDs can be approached as a straightforward operation.
“One way is to take A onto B. You take the whole tape and just (record) it onto a DVD,” says Brown. A straight transfer from one media to another is a relatively easy and affordable option, and a good first step toward organizing old movies. “You can always edit and make changes later on,” Brown reasons.
Typically, Keepsake charges $15 to do no-edit transfer of an hour of camcorder tape to a DVD, $20 for 90 minutes, and $25 for two-hours of action. (Other business offer similar services, and their fees vary. Before turning your irreplaceable tapes over to anyone, ask questions and check references.)
Keepsake Family Tree Video elects to transfer a maximum of two hours of tape onto a single DVD disk. “You can set stuff for going longer but it’s never really a good idea,” as picture quality suffers, Brown says. In fact, if he could turn back time, Brown would have anyone who bought a two-hour tape and recorded it on extended- or long-play speed re-shoot it at standard speed. “Time after time after time,” people afraid of missing action would set their camera so that they could squeeze more on tapes, but a steep price was paid. “It’s a quality issue,” Brown says.
For people who prefer to take matters into their own hands, investing in a DVD recorder is an option. Transferring can be as simple as sliding the VHS tape in its slot (you know how to do that), putting a blank DVD into the DVD drive (you can do that, too), and pushing “record.” Easy like pie.
Once a high-end item, the price of DVD recorders has dropped dramatically. A DVD recorder/VCR combo with DVD+R/RW recording and one touch dubbing from VHS to DVD can be had for as little as $150 these days.
Of course, sometimes there are good reasons for things to be a tad more complicated. DVD recorders are becoming sophisticated dubbing machines, capable of converting standard-resolution images to high-definition content. Some mid- to high-end models, including Panasonic’s DMR-EH75, include a slot for a Secure Digital Card, which makes it easy to take still shots from a digital camera and burn them to DVD, no laptop or desktop computer needed.
Calling on Computers
Personal computers are another means to turn outdated tapes into digital gems.
“Computers now come with video editing software-whether you like it or not,” Brown quips. If that’s the case, once old tapes are transferred to a DVD, “You can put the disc on your (hard) drive and do your own editing.”
Technologically savvy types might consider taking on the task of transferring tape to DVD themselves. A computer, peripherals and software are needed, “And you’d better have a lot of (computer) memory,” cautions Brown. No small investment of time or money, “It’s a lot of work for a lot of people who aren’t into (technology).”
A big plus of using a computer, rather than just a DVD recorder, to create DVDs from tapes is that computer software allows great flexibility in organizing the footage. For instance, separate events can become stand-alone DVD menu items, a soundtrack and narration can be added, stills can be dropped in between motion pictures and professional titles and transitions can be incorporated.
Several tape-transfer packages are on the market for PC users. Pinnacle Studio’s MovieBox DV is a first choice of C-Net editors. MovieBox DV includes hardware, video editing software and MediaManager software to help classify and organize video, photos and audio files. Projects can be rendered in a number formats, including AVI, DVD, MPEG, RealMedia SVCD and Windows Media file.
Jim Held wrote an excellent article for Macworld outlining the steps for using a Mac to transfer tape to DVD (online at http://www.macworld.com/2004/05/features/fromvhstodvd/index.php ). Held outlined the equipment necessary, including a transfer station (VCR or camcorder), proper digitizing hardware (a device to convert the analog signal to digital data), and an extra hard drive (digital video sucks up disk space at a rate of about 200MB per minute, which means an hour of footage requires about 12GB of free space), plus the appropriate cables.
Brown points to one more reason to get old tapes into an easily viewable format: “People give the copy to their kids, showing them growing up for 15, 20 years. A lot of times what that does, we find, is sometimes kids grow up and they think, ‘Oh my life sucks.’ They thought their folks never did anything for them.” However, the DVD offers proof to the contrary. “They see themselves and go, ‘I guess it wasn’t as bad as I thought. Look at all the fun I’m having.’ ? Parents can show, ‘Here’s all the parties we did for you, the fun you had.’ The stuff (their kids) forget.”
A DVD of life’s highlights can also be a wonderful gift to someone whose time on this planet is winding down. “Put together a nice piece and let them see themselves and see what a wonderful life they had,” Brown encourages. After viewing it, Brown predicts the viewer will likely think, “That’s the best I can do. I guess I did pretty dang good.”