In this post, I consider two options for digitizing VHS tapes and think about the process for digitizing family movies.
My family gave me eleven Video Home System (VHS) tapes of Yip family gatherings from the 1980s and 90s. My cousin said, “You will know what to do with these.” She was confident in my knowledge but I was less certain. What should I do with them? There was no question of keeping them in their original format. VHS tapes are inherently fragile: even if stored perfectly, they will deteriorate over time. The best method of preservation is digitization. But how?
This week I got an email from Kodak.
Option 1: Outsource to Kodak
There was a sale at Kodak: they’d convert twenty tapes for $249 ($12.45/ tape). Not only would this save me tons of time but it was also 58% off. I get excited about deals that are more than half off. But it appeared the offer was about to expire… should I get the deal now and choose tapes later? I only had eleven tapes.
I asked my husband, “How many VHS tapes do you need digitized?”
“A lot,” he said, eating breakfast, “when do you need them?”
I turned back to the site to read the fine print. Everything in the ad checked out. It seemed legit. I was on the verge of clicking the Buy Now button when I realized I was reading the “.com” site. I’m in Canada. I’ve been burned by American sites before. I searched the site for shipping outside the United States.
WHAT? ARE YOU KIDDING ME? WHY AM I GETTING MARKETING EMAILS FOR SERVICES I CAN’T USE?
Scratch the Kodak option.
Option 2: do it yourself
I remembered we had a machine for converting tapes. It’s been sitting under our TV for more than eight years. I took a closer look.
Have you ever done this? Buy some custom hardware for a project and by the time you get around to it, the media are obsolete? Say hello to our VHS to Digital Versatile Disc (DVD) converter. This machine was released in 2011, but the DVD format had the life expectancy of a house fly. Who needs DVDs in the era of Dropbox and Netflix?
Scratch the DIY option.
Should you digitize at all?
I was still curious about what was on the tapes. I dusted off the Toshiba and popped a tape into the VHS slot. Handling the controls took me back to my youth, of Blockbuster Video stores, Be kind – rewind, of FFWD / RWD / PLAY / PAUSE.
VHS sound and vision is worse than you remember
I’d forgotten how dreadful VHS was.
The tape took a few seconds to play: the sound washing in and out, with white stripes running across the picture. When it got going, the video was soft and fuzzy. My eyes, now accustomed to 4K high-definition, kept trying and failing to focus what I was seeing into the sharpness I subconsciously expect.
The sound was worse. I was reminded of advice given before appearing in my first online panel:
People will tolerate bad visuals but will not tolerate bad sound.K. L. Hogan, Genealogy with a Canadian Twist, “Genealogy Planning,” 8 Jan 2020
My ears took some time to attune to sounds recorded on a 1980s handheld video camera and played back on a thirty-six year old tape. Eventually my ears got used to the muddiness – like listening to someone speaking through a wall – and my brain sorted out the words.
I reviewed three tapes. I meant to review four but the last one was broken – the tape had come undone from one spool and was firmly wrapped around the left side. I realized that not every tape was worth digitizing. Looking briefly at the rest of the titles, I realized many are duplicates. Of the original eleven, it’s possible I’ll only be converting three or four tapes in total.
Home movies are hard to identify
Do you remember videotapes? Shows recorded on top of each other? Fast-forwarding a tape to find the beginning of the next bit? I didn’t. Reviewing these tapes reminded me of all of that. For these videos, the videographer was careful, shooting events, significant photos, family trees, and setup visuals (now called B-roll). It was like watching tapes of raw video – video before the editing process.
For each tape, I made notes:
- Name of tape as written on the box
- Description of what was on the tape
- Time stamps: when a section began and when it ended
- What was being recorded in each section
For example: “Yip Family Reunion 1986, Gastown Productions, 342 Water St. Van., 685-8143;” (1986); [name withheld], “2 mins 18 sec to 26 mins 38 sec – picnic.”
I realized something significant.
Digitizing alone would not improve the quality of these recordings.
These tapes need heavy editing.
Why is video editing important?
If you’re not familiar with the video editing process, let me share what I’ve learned:
All video is improved by the editing process, even videos shot on the latest smartphones. A “long” video is considered to be over three minutes. Videos need captions: for accents, enunciation, unfamiliar names, and more. The easier you make a video to understand, the more likely it is to be viewed by your intended audience, from family to friends.
As a family historian, I have endless patience for memories, but if I want anyone coming after me to be similarly interested, these hours of visuals will need heavy editing. Were I to simply digitize the tapes as they are for my family – complete with muddy sound, fuzzy visuals, and without titles and tags – I doubt few would bother watching them.
No editing? No audience.
Let me share a story with you. Years ago, my husband’s family took the time to digitize Super 8 movies from about the 1940s. The concept sounded fabulous and the family generously made several DVD copies. When they were done, we all gathered to watch. I could feel the unease in the room. We went from fascinated to curious to frustrated within ten minutes. It was hard to pay attention to the silent, choppy visuals of mostly unidentifiable people in unknown places as they went about their lives. When they spoke to the camera, I almost expected a Chaplinesque screen to appear with words. The shaking camera made me nauseous. I’m a genealogist and I had a hard time paying attention for the duration.
We’ve never bothered to watch them again.
Which brings me to why. Why take the time to digitize old tapes?
What are your goals for a digitization project?
As I work through this process, I need to ask myself about the goals of this project. Before investing time and dollars:
- What are the goals for converting the tapes to digital?
- Who is the intended audience?
- Where will the converted files be used?
- Where will the files be stored?
- How will the files be shared?
- Where will the files go in twenty years or more (legacy planning)?
My answers to the above are:
- Goals: genealogical research, preservation of family legacy
- Audience: family, readers, students
- Usage: genealogical research, blog, teaching materials
- Storage: Dropbox and external hard drive
- Sharing: not yet determined but possibly Dropbox
- Legacy planning: public archives
My reasons will be different from yours but remember: the goals should guide the project. I’m a storyteller: my goal is to tell the stories of our lineage. To do that, I am thinking about curating the best bits of these recordings and turning them into shorter, more consumable videos. I’m weighing the investment against the results and already I’m editing: choosing which tapes to convert and which to ignore. Unlike photos, where I scanned every original, I won’t be digitizing two copies of the same video.
Next steps: outsource locally
I’m ready to consider outsourcing again. After this experience I know better what to look for: shipping to Canada, safety in handling one-of-a-kind family originals, and perhaps some editing. If I could take on another project like the five year Chu family photo scanning project, where I had more time than money, I’d convert the tapes to DVD with our current hardware, then find a way to upload the results to Dropbox. I’ll keep you posted on what happens next.
Thank yous this week to my cousins Hoy and Grace for their lifelong dedication to our family legacy. I stand on your shoulders and I am forever grateful.