Digitizing Home Video

The one thing COVID-19 has given us is time. Time to stress, time to reevaluate and, if one can muster the will, time to be productive. For years I've been punting several preservation projects related to my family's history, photos, and home video. In recent months, I've taken on my immediate family's aging collection of VHS media to pull it forward into the digital age.

It started months ago with some Super 8 footage from Mae's side of the family. Unsorted reels moved to VHS at some point in the '80s or '90s, then captured onto my Mac to be encoded and sent back to Mae's parents. A lot of that footage revolved around airshows, private planes, and races at the local speedway. It's really neat stuff that documentarians would kill to use for stock. As far as I've found, my family doesn't have anything nearly as dated or dynamic, but we do have a lot of tape from when my sister and I were kids in the '90s and early '00s.

After asking my mom for a few tapes to get started, I started on those documenting my birth and first few months. It's with these I worked out a process I've carried through for the rest.

The Media

For this project, I've been working with 3 different types of physical media. VHS, VHS-C, and Hi8.

The Tech

To capture the real-time playback of each tape, I'm using a UCEC USB capture card. It's cheap and may or may not capture up to 720p, which is more than you need for a VHS anyway. If you have a nicer one for gaming that supports RCA, that works too. I opted for this one because Catalina doesn't place nice with some devices like these but this one specified its compatibility.

For VHS playback, I'm using a Toshiba SD-V295. For Sony's Hi8s, I'm using a DCR-TRV320 Digital Handycam. My parents used a CCD-TRV99 to record these tapes, but it sadly will no longer power up. I have no idea where the DCR model came from, but I'm glad I had it.

The VHS-C tapes, which make up the majority of the video, require a motorized adapter. We had one, but a battery was left in it that corroded the battery contacts beyond immediate repair. I had a lot of fun tearing it down and cleaning it out, but in order to continue on my quest, I ordered a new adapter from Newegg.

The Process

Step one: hook up a VCR to your 5K iMac with the capture card.
Step two: open up QuickTime Player.

For a few years, I've been looking for a third-party video editor as lightweight and versatile as the one that comes with every Mac. It's easy to forget how handy this little app is for trimming ends and joining clips. It's also great for capturing video from a virtual webcam, which this capture card creates for us.

File > New Movie Recording will give you a new capture window. The important step here is using the small downward-facing arrow next to the record button to record A/V from the capture card (make sure you capture both!) and set the quality from High to Maximum. This will create a 576p video file.

It's probably a good idea to make sure you've got plenty of space, because these raw captures will take up a LOT of it. We're talking 18-20GB per tape. To help with that, I use Handbrake to re-encode the video using either H.264 or H.265. I usually opt for H.265 because the point of this endeavor is future-proofing our home video. The files sizes are smaller and retain more detail than with H.264. The drawback is less compatibility on devices other than my Mac. If a larger but more easily editable .mov file suits your needs, exporting (as opposed to saving) from QuickTime will reduce the amount of encoding time your machine endures.

Because of the way these tapes were recorded and transferred, some tapes required some splitting. For this, I used Final Cut Pro and then Handbrake.

Sharing & Storage

There are a lot of ways one could share these tapes with the family, but the way that works best for us Plex. I have a Plex Media Server hosted on my machine that is shared with each member of my immediate family. This allows them to stream these videos anytime they like. VHS on demand! What a concept!

I keep copies of all of these videos on two drives. One for the media server, and a backup on my archive drive. Both are backed up remotely via Backblaze.