Recovering Home Video

I have forty-six tapes with home videos that cover family events from 1996 to 2005. These tapes have been stored in a box for as many years. I recently took on the project of moving them to a format we can enjoy. My two challenges: how to get them off of the tapes and how to make them accessible to everyone in the family.

Camera to Computer

The camera used to take these videos, a Sony Digital HandyCam DCR TRV 120 , is still operational. I made that discovery after purchasing a power cord from Amazon. Then I needed cabling to connect the camera to my computer. This was hit and miss because it wasn’t clear to me which cables would work. I’m thankful Amazon has a generous return policy. I had three cable attempts fail. I settled on a combination of two cables that allowed me to go from a 1/4 inch camera output to composite and then composite to USB. The composite to USB came with drivers and software to capture video on a Mac.

Cables:

HDE 3ft. Feet RCA Male to 3.5mm Male Jack Composite Audio Video A/V Cable

S-Video / Composite to USB Video Capture Cable Adapter w/ TWAIN and Mac Support – VHS to USB Composite Svideo

Capture Process

The capture process requires each tape to be played from the camera and recorded on the Mac. A 45-minute recording takes 45 minutes to capture. I learned the capture process is a bit fragile. After recording eighteen videos (aka eighteen hours of recording), I discovered eleven videos had no audio or the audio was out of sync. I made some changes to my process to ensure the remaining recording would go well.

  • The video capture software should be the only application running on the Mac during the capture process
  • Play the audio through the Mac, not the camera, to verify the audio is getting to the camera
  • Rebooted at the start of each recording session or after every four tapes

Some tapes had sixty minutes of content while others had thirty-five. The best process for me was to let the 60-minute tape run through and edit out the blue screen when it completed. This allowed me to do other things while capturing the video. When the recording was complete, I would open the resulting .mov file in QuickTime and trim out the blank recording from the end.

Serving Home Video

I chose to serve the home videos through Plex. Plex allows you to store, manage, and stream your personal media. I expect I will be using Plex home movies and maybe photos in the future. Plex is an open source application that requires a central server to stream content to Plex clients. A Plex client can be almost any device. For me it will be Apple TV, iPads, iPhones, a Roku, and Fire TVs. Content can be streamed in and out of my home network. With grown-up children, having remote access to the video content is important.

After a bit of research, I learned that a Raspberry Pi could be used as a server, but it may not be powerful enough. Since I had a Pi 3, I decided to give it a try. Comfortable with Linux and the command line, I had a Plex server running on the Pi in 15 minutes using a resource like How to set up a Raspberry Pi Plex server. I connected a USB external drive to the Pi to store the 140GB of home videos.

It worked! The quality of the video is fantastic. When streaming a 30-minute video from a device, it will stop a few times and buffer. A “your server is not powerful enough…” type message will also appear, but it works. (See Update 12-31-18 below)

Next Steps

Plex Server Upgrade – My next project is to upgrade the $35 Raspberry Pi to a more powerful single board computer (SBC). I’m looking at a RockPro64 or NanoPC T4 with 250GB m.2 storage. I think this will deliver my minimal needs and not break the bank. And more importantly, it’s a fun tech project. Stay tuned. (See Update 12-31-18 below)

Video Editing – I discovered that the 19-year-old video labeled as Christmas 1999, was really four events starting in December, 1999 and ending in July, 2000. Now that I have the videos on my computer, I’ll be breaking them into smaller videos. No commitment on when this will be complete.

Moving forward – We all take lots of video with our smartphones. For me, it’s not intentional, long-form video, like my Digital 8 tapes. It’s short bursts of interesting things. Moving forward, I need to figure out how to aggregate that video in a format my kids can enjoy in 25 years.

UPDATE: 12-31-18

It turns out, I don’t need to upgrade the Raspberry Pi, I just needed to educate myself on video formats, transcoding, and Plex. As I utilize more features of Plex in the future, I may need more power than a Raspberry Pi 3 provides, but for now, it will work fine to serve my fifty home movies.

The power of Plex is its ability to transcode video for the device viewing the content. When converting my video from tape to digital, I create .mov files. When viewing these videos on Apple TV or iPads, they are transcoded from MPEG to H.264. This is a CPU heavy process.

Plex provides the ability to pre-optimize videos and save them on the server. For my videos, that format is H.264 at 480p resolution. When viewing a pre-optimized video, Plex doesn’t need to transcode the video, just stream it, which is not CPU intensive. This is called Direct Play.

When you have a low powered Plex server, like a Raspberry Pi, the goals is to Direct Play all videos by pre-optimizing them for the devices they are viewed on.

Pre-Optimizing is very easy. You simply choose one or more videos and select the Optimize option. Since this process is CPU intensive, it may take a long time for each video, but it’s only a one-time process.

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