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Six Colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

Video archaeology

Note: This story has not been updated for several years.

Again we see that there is nothing you can possess that I can not take away.

Maybe ten years ago I embarked on a mission to convert a bunch of my old VHS videotapes into digital files. The goal was to preserve home movies and all the videos my friends and I made in high school1. I never managed to get through the entire stack, and for a decade my old VCR, camcorder, and tapes have been tucked away in a box.

Late last week I realized that all the pieces of my old project were within a few feet of my desk, and I set about reconnecting my old setup. It involves an old VCR, which I have to route through an analog-to-digital converter in the form of my old Sony Digital 8 camcorder. I needed to connect that camcorder to my iMac via an amusing cable chain: mini FireWire 400/iLink to FireWire 400 to a FireWire 400-800 adapter to a FireWire 800-to-Thunderbolt adapter.

Surprisingly, that connection actually worked, and my old camcorder—in playback mode but without a tape in it, turning it into a dumb converter box—showed up as a source in the current versions of both Final Cut Pro and iMovie. I could see what was being played on my old VCR right in the preview window. Unfortunately, that software doesn’t really seem to understand the idea of video capture from a setup like this—though I could press the capture button, it seemed to be waiting for some information from the camera that never came.

The solution, as I had feared, was to use iMovie 9.0.9, and indeed, that version was able to capture my old videos. (Standard-definition DV format files are enormous! Fortunately, I was able to convert them to very nice MPEG-4 versions using HandBrake and toss out the huge DV files.)

Old media!

This turned out to be the easiest part of my project. The toughest part involved the media itself: 30-year-old videotapes. My old VCR struggled to forward and rewind cassettes, which had been sitting unplayed for at least 15 years, if not 20. Even my old trick of forwarding to the end of a tape, then rewinding to the beginning in order to loosen things up, didn’t work great. There was a lot of starting and stopping. What’s worse, this old videotape is falling apart. Tape was constantly getting tangled in the play heads of the VCR.

I ended up popping the top off of the VCR so that when a tangle occurred, I could untangle the tape with a minimum of damage. I also ended up with a bottle of isopropyl alcohol, scissors, and a sheet of blank paper, so that I could cut out little strips of paper, coat them with alcohol, and use them to clean the video play heads, which kept getting clogged.

Shockingly, this approach managed to salvage video of a 1987 high-school rock concert that wowed people on Facebook, and I even discovered a 1999 appearance of mine on Leo Laporte’s “Call for Help” show on ZDTV.

One of my motivations for dipping into my video archive was to uncover the two tapes on which I had collected some favorite moments from “Late Night With David Letterman,” which I watched faithfully throughout high school. I’m feeling nostalgic for Letterman these days, since he’s retiring in May. Every time I would uncover a portion of an episode on a videotape, I’d do a web search for the guests to see if I could find the show date, since there’s a complete list of Letterman shows on the Internet. (Of course there is.)

But as I was making those searches, I noticed something else: Almost every single show, every single favorite moment that I had refused to tape over back in the 1980s because I might want to watch it later, was on YouTube. That May 7, 1986 show featuring Cybill Shepherd in a towel? It’s on YouTube—I watched the entire episode this weekend.

The lesson learned here is, I suppose, that there’s always someone who is a bigger fan than you, a bigger packrat, a more obsessive YouTube uploader, a video archaeologist who will beat you to the prize. And if you put off your rainy-day project of digitizing those old videotapes long enough, someone else will beat you to the punch and save you the trouble. So I’ll survey my old tapes for anything that’s unique, but I’ll do so with the realization that unless it’s a home movie, it’s probably already on YouTube.

  1. They’re pretty painful to watch, but I made a DVD of the three James Bond parodies we made, and we recorded commentary tracks. It was a fun DVD Studio Pro project, but I’m not sure I ever need to see those movies again. 

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