Save Those Home Videos--on DVD

You'll need to spend at least a couple hundred bucks--and a lot of time at the PC. But the results can be worth the trouble.

When our first daughter was born six years ago, my in-laws gave us a video camera to preserve her first steps, first words, and--alas--even her first temper tantrum. Then about a year ago I started hearing disturbing news about videotapes: They won't last more than 10 or 15 years, which means my two daughters can watch the tapes when they're in high school or college, but their kids won't likely ever see the footage.

What to do? Since DVD recorders--commonly known as "burners"--have now gotten cheap enough for the mass market ($300 to $500), this seemed like a good time to transfer my old analog Hi8 videotapes to disks, which are presumed to last several decades, although no one really knows for sure.

The switch to DVD isn't as straightforward as it should be, but if you're comfortable with a PC, you'll eventually be able to make some snazzy disks from your old videotapes. The process involves three steps: transferring the original video from your analog camcorder to your PC (this is called capturing), editing the clips and adding goodies such as transitions and titles, and burning (or recording) the finished product on a DVD.

Ultimately, the easiest way to get this done is to pay someone to do it for you. It may also be the cheapest, depending on how many tapes you need to convert. I tried a company called YesVideo, which will transfer a two-hour tape to DVD for about $35. (Check for drop-off locations.) That's a bit pricey, but if you have just a few tapes, it costs far less than buying a DVD burner and laying out $3 to $8 for each blank disk. This method, however, only transfers your original footage to disk--both good scenes and bad--so your friends will never discover your true talents as a Hollywood filmmaker.

If you want to get in touch with your inner Spielberg, the first hurdle is putting your footage into the computer. In an ideal world, you would plug your camera into your computer and be ready to go. Not so fast. Relatively few PCs have an "analog video capture card," the little device that can turn an analog signal (which comes out of your camera) into a digital one (the only kind your computer can understand).

There's a relatively simple--if rather expensive--way around this: Buy a new digital camcorder, which costs about $600 and up. You can plug the analog camera into the digital one and then hook the digital camera into your PC. The digital camera takes care of the conversion for you, but you usually need a fast Firewire connector (a rarity on an older computer) to make this work. Although I found myself tripping over a tangle of wires and cables, once I got the two cameras hooked together, getting the video into my PC was a snap.

The other option is to buy a capture card. If you're not squeamish about opening up your computer, an internal one that fits into an expansion slot works fine. The Sony model that I tried costs $80--it will be available in January--and includes a simple program for editing your videos as well. Otherwise, you can buy an external converter for $150 to $250 from companies such as Adaptec (ADPT ) and Dazzle, both of which also include editing software.

Unfortunately, capturing can be time-consuming, and you can't take too many short cuts. My first instinct was to plug the gear together, turn it on, and go to bed. When I tried this with the Adaptec capture card, though, any interruption in the original video--even a one-second blip of static--caused my computer to stop recording even as the analog camera kept rolling. So in the morning, I would wake up to a 15-minute file on my hard drive and my analog tape all the way at the end. This wasn't a problem when I used the digital camera. Adaptec says it's fixing the problem.

When I finally got my raw footage on my PC's hard drive, it was time to get creative. Or so I thought. It took several hours of fiddling with various programs before I understood the ins and outs of video editing. The program I found simplest to use was Sony's EZ Video. I was able to drag the clips I wanted onto an editing bar and cut out some of my clumsier camerawork, such as footage of the concrete and cobblestone sidewalks of various European capitals.

Then I chose from dozens of fonts for titles and from a score of options for transitions between scenes. You can choose cinematic effects such as pages turning or images spinning into the frame like newspapers in a 1940s movie. Finally, I added a menu, so I could jump to my daughter's first steps without fast-forwarding through her less auspicious early moments. I also tried Roxio's VideoWave and Sonic Solutions' MyDVD, both of which were more than adequate, if somewhat more complicated to figure out.

Once I had my finished movie, it was time to burn it on a DVD. The first step here is rendering--that is, creating the actual file that will be recorded. This is painfully slow: A two-hour movie took two hours on a Hewlett-Packard computer I have with a 2.0 Gigahertz Pentium 4 chip--and more than three hours on my older Pentium III machine. Finally, I pushed a blank disk into my PC.

But a little box popped up on screen telling me no dice.

The reason: My movie was too long. In fact, all three programs I tried let me put together movies that exceeded the capacity of the disk--with no warning until it was time to burn. And in each case I had to go back almost to square one and recreate my movie, this time shorter, but all the while able only to guess what the right length might be. Each disk should hold as much as two hours, depending on the settings you choose, but none of the programs was terribly clear about how much video would fit.

Once I got my burned DVDs in hand, though, watching all of those glorious--and indecorous--moments from years past was a breeze. I even burned some extra copies for my in-laws. Now, I just have to get them to buy a DVD player.

By David Rocks

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