Digitize your movies

Move your home movies onto your hard drive. We'll tell you what kind of gear and software you'll need.

Analog movies can be the easiest--or the hardest--medium to digitize, depending on the format you're working with. While older camcorder and video formats such as 8mm and Hi8 or VHS and Betamax tapes are easy to transfer, digitizing film can be difficult at best.

Digitizing via PC Capture

If you plan to use your PC to digitize movies, you'll find dozens of affordable analog video capture products on the market. You simply run RCA or S-Video cables from your playback de­­vice (VCR or camcorder, say) to the in­­puts on the capture device, and then record using the latter's software.

At the consumer level, USB devices dominate. Options range from USB sticks such as Hauppauge's US$50 USB-Live2 to larger USB units such as Pinnacle's $100 Studio MovieBox HD (both models bundle capable recording and editing software, too). Pinnacle's unit even supports uncompressed digital video recording, a plus for extensive editing or restoration. Before you head to the store, check your PC to see whether it has a TV card--many models (newer ones, especially) support S-Video and composite input that will serve nicely for digitizing video. USB also rules the TV tuner market, but if you prefer a card, ATI-based units such as Diamond Multimedia's AMD ATI Theater HD 750 PCIE also provide capture capabilities.

Digitizing Video With a DVR

A DVD-capable DVR, especially one that can record to dual-layer DVD+R discs for 4 hours of good-quality re­­cording, is excellent for digitizing movies. Nearly all such devices have composite and S-Video in­­puts to which you can attach your VCR or camcorder for the transfer. Recording to DVD instead of to a hard drive enables you to easily transfer the video to your computer for any editing you deem necessary. You won't get the near-lossless transfer of a PC capturing to an uncompressed DVI format, but the MPEG-2 compression that DVRs employ is perfectly adequate in most cases, especially if you record in HQ mode.

If you've recycled your VHS VCR, but you own VHS tapes that you'd like to transfer, a combo VCR/DVR (which records and plays both VHS and DVD) like JVC's $250 DR-MV150B, allows direct dubbing from videotape to DVD. The drawback of this combo approach is that you can't pause the recording, nor can you easily spread a recording over multiple discs.

One other issue: DVRs other than those from media delivery companies such as AT&T, Comcast, DirecTV, and Dish are slowly being discontinued both because the market for them is shrinking and because other devices can't decode the proprietary digital signals that the media delivery giants employ. Still, plenty of used units should be available well into the future.

Another option for VHS is Ion Audio's $100 VCR 2 PC, a box that plays your videotapes and outputs the video to your computer via a USB connection. The included Arcsoft-authored EZ Video Converter recording application is attractive, easy to use, and capable. However, it doesn't control the transport functions on the VCR--you must still press the play, stop, and other buttons, so it's not as convenient as it could be. This option does not permit uncompressed recording either, but the results that I saw in HQ compressed mode were good.

The VCR 2 PC device also has composite and monophonic audio outputs. My transfer recordings from these outputs looked every bit as good as the ones that I rendered via USB. So, too, did the re­­cordings that I made with my old Toshiba VCR's composite output running through an alternative analog video capture unit, the $90 Avid Dazzle Video Creator Plus HD.

Once you have your playback and record devices in place, the dubbing technique is simple: Attach the playback device to the composite or S-Video (preferred) input on the capture device, start recording with the DVR or in the recording software, and then press Play on the playback device and record until the movie or video ends.


If you have a box of old 8mm or 16mm film, digitizing it is either dead simple or very difficult. The dead-simple op­­tion is to send the film to a transfer service, though mailing it does put it at risk of loss or damage en route. But doing the job yourself is hard and time consuming, as no consumer-level dedicated 8mm/16mm film scanner is available.

It's physically possible to scan 8mm or 16mm film frame-by-frame using a 35mm slide scanner or a flatbed scanner that handles slides. But this approach entails endless cropping and reassembly. I've done it with 5 seconds of film, with excellent results--but I'll never do it again. A maximum 18 frames per second for 8mm film means 1080 images per minute of movie. That's a lot of work.

Re-recording film to digital video is far quicker but involves a loss of quality. You'll need a decent 8mm (plain or super) or 16mm projector to display the film-used models run $100 to $200-and a screen or whiteboard to project it on. You record the resulting image with a digital video camera. Setup involves quite a lot of tweaking, and the results will vary de­­pending on the quality of the equipment and your patience.

Video Editors

Once you've digitized your movies, you'll need software to trim, fix de­­fects, and perhaps add effects and a title. Among the more popular and capable commercial video-editing packages are Adobe's $100 Premiere Elements 9, Cyberlink's $70 PowerDirector 9, Sony's $45 Vegas Movie Studio HD, Roxio's $100 Creator 2011, Nero's $70 Multimedia Suite 10, and Apple's $199 Final Cut Express for the Mac. You can download demo versions of most of these packages at PCWorld.com's Downloads, and it's a good idea to get a feel for the various products before buying a full version.

I generally use a freebie for my video editing--Avidemux, which has a ton of filters for restoring video as well as tools for basic editing. Its best feature, though, is that it lets you trim video and save the results without re-encoding--a valuable time-saver that many for-pay programs still don't offer.

A Few Recording Tips

Recording uncompressed digital video allows the most accurate application of effects and filters and is the best starting point for any subsequent encoding. But uncompressed video creates very large files, requires more processing power, and must eventually be encoded to fit whatever physical medium (CD, DVD, or Blu-ray) you choose to store it on. Encoding is a time-consuming process even on a fast PC.

If you don't plan to do extensive editing or processing of your digitized video, you can save time by recording in the compression format and the resolution suitable for your destination medium: MPEG-1 for video CDs, MPEG-2 for super video CDs and DVDs, h.264 for Blu-ray, and so on.

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Jon L. Jacobi

PC World (US online)
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