Disclaimer: this post is geeky and technical. Turn back now if you find this off-putting.

I have lots and lots of home videos. We’re talking hundreds of hours. As time goes on, though, I’m worried that these tapes will deteriorate and I won’t be able to watch them in five or ten years. So, I’ve made it my mission recently to start archiving these things digitally, not just to preserve them, but so my family can watch them fairly easily and actually use these videos as memories.

This is harder than you might even think. My family’s videos span four formats: VHS-C (those chunky little versions of VHS that held about 20 minutes each), Analog 8mm, Digital8 (Sony’s proprietary DV format), and MiniDV.  I’m most concerned about the Digital8 tapes; Sony was the only company to produce or support them, and they’ve moved on now. This means that when the Digital8 decks of the world stop working, my tapes are useless. So, I’m using our aging Digital8 camcorder to start archiving in the mid-nineties since these seem to be the most at risk.

I had to spend a lot of time considering formats for the archive. Native DV video takes up about 14 GB/hour, and at about 300-400 hours of video, I wasn’t ready to commit that much space to the home videos (especially considering we’ll be keeping a backup copy of the data as well). Saving the video in some kind of MPEG2 DVD format seemed silly; DVD is on the way out, and there are better codecs now anyway. What I finally settled on was MP4 files encoded in H.264 (incidentally, the files should be ready to dump onto Blu-Ray without transcoding). True, H.264 is a delivery codec, not an archival or editing one, but I tested out the durability of my settings by recompressing the MP4 files as MPEG-2 for DVD, and there was very little noticeable degradation in the output. I’m happy with my footage being able to survive one generation of recompression.

I’m keeping the video in its native resolution of 720 x 480 interlaced. This presents its own problems, namely that computers and progressive-scan equipment will have to deinterlace and squish the video slightly in order to play the clips back correctly. But in the interest of flexibility in conversion years down the line, this seemed like a good compromise between space, viewability, and quality.

On the subject of audio, it turns out sync is a huge issue when capturing consumer home videos, especially from analog sources. I’m using the Digital8 deck to do the A/D conversion from 8mm, and apparently the audio is passed at 12-bit, 32 kHz. Almost all of my Digital8 and MiniDV footage was also recorded at this setting, apparently. Editing software hates this, and the audio falls out of sync with the picture almost every time. So I’m forced to let Final Cut upsample the audio before touching the captured footage at all.

From there, I’m breaking each tape into days or events (right in Compressor) and saving the MP4 files in the format “YYYY-MM-DD_DescriptionHere.mp4”. I figure even if networked playback systems can’t deal with metadata, this will at least let us sort the events chronologically, and get a vague idea of what we’re looking for.

It’ll be interesting to see if what I’m doing is actually as future-proof as I hope it is. It’s frustrating to think that digital video, perfect copies of bits and bytes, may be susceptible to obsolescence down the line. But we’ll still have the tapes as a line of last defense, and as long as I don’t kill the playback equipment over the course of the project, we’ll never have to use it (and degrade it) again. The process seems ridiculous, but it’s already paying off. As David Pogue of the NY Times coincidentally wrote recently, I’m really enjoying watching the tapes as they’re capturing. And that’s the kind of experience I hope to make possible years from now by having this archive at our fingertips.