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Losing Your Memories? Transfer Them to Digital

By Jay McDonald

Bob Wilson looked at his 13-year-old wedding video recently and turned white.

"I've completely lost the color in it. It's fairly priceless," he says. "You can't go back in time and it's expensive to have a wedding."

Fortunately, Wilson had the foresight to transfer the irreplaceable footage to DVD four years ago. As vice president for sales and marketing for YesVideo, a Santa Clara, Calif., company that specializes in preserving still photos, film and videotape on DVD, Wilson knew firsthand what countless parents are suddenly discovering: Videos are not forever.

"Videotape has a useful life of about 10 years," he says. "What happens when you use a videotape is, immediately the metal particles start falling off. If I had not transferred it to DVD, it would have been lost."

If you're like most busy parents or two-income households, you haven't viewed those video keepsakes in years.

"It's a weird thing. If you ask consumers what they would save in a fire, after the kids and dog, videotapes came first, then photos. Videotapes came first because they better represent people's memories, yet people don't spend any time cataloging them or organizing them, or even watching them, because they're hard to watch. I think most video is viewed on the little two-inch screen that is on the camcorder."

Preserve your memories
Thanks to personal computing, we no longer stand to lose our memories. Companies such as YesVideo and will transfer your childhood 16mm, 8mm and Super8 film, Beta or VHS videotape, still prints and 35mm slides -- even digital photos -- onto DVD, virtually for pocket change.

YesVideo transfers up to two hours of home video, including audio (if any), to DVD for $24.99. Home movie footage costs $49.99 for the first 250 feet (roughly 35 minutes of footage) and 10 cents a foot thereafter. Photos and slides cost $49.99 for the first 80 images and 40 cents per image after that. You can even select the sequence in which you want your separate videos, prints or slides transferred, though you cannot mix media.

You want a music soundtrack with that? It's free; choose from smooth jazz, rock, big band , classical, Hawaiian, country or winter holiday.

Video-to-YesDVD service is available at any Kodak photo counter that features overnight processing (i.e., WalMart, Kmart, Target, Rite-Aid, Walgreens, etc.). Film and still transfers are available at Walgreens and select Best Buy stores; visit for a complete list of outlets.

YesVideo and several other companies, including JVC and Panasonic, also have recently introduced combo VCR-DVD players in the $285-to-$350 price range that can convert your home VHS tapes to DVDs, though their primary purpose is to enable you to watch both formats with one remote, sans the stacked players. But beware: There are conversion issues that can make this video-to-DVD option a complicated science experiment all its own.

Regardless of which route you choose, there are several advantages to digitizing your video library:

DIY for the adventurous
If you're a video editing enthusiast or diehard do-it-yourselfer, you can always take a whack at converting your library yourself. That's what Jan Ozer, contributing editor for PC Magazine and author of "The PC Magazine Guide to Digital Video," did last summer.

Ozer projected 10 hours of film footage from his childhood onto a white foam board in an image about the size of a sheet of paper, then recorded it using a $3,000 DV camcorder on a tripod situated just below the projector. If you patch your DV camcorder into your computer at the same time, you can simultaneously capture it on your hard drive in real time.

But there are challenges. First, you need a lightless room, ideally one without windows. You'll also need a band oleer of DV tapes; an hour of film takes up about 13 gigabytes of memory. Then there's the flicker issue; you'll need to adjust both the camcorder's shutter speed and the film projector's speed to synchronize the frames-per-second in order to eliminate it.

The results? "There is some detail lost in what we shot but it's the kind of thing that would be acceptable to most people," Ozer says.

He then sent the DV tapes off to two service bureaus for a little restoration work. Cinepost used a high-end conversion system for scratch elimination and color correction; MovieStuff adjusted color using an Adobe Premiere editing program.

Was it worth it? "In some instances, it was night and day, depending on the source, but in most cases it would only be noticeable if you looked at them side by side," he admits. "The quality was better, but you end up paying a pretty high price."

The experience gave Ozer renewed appreciation for why we pull out the camcorder in the first place. He invited his 75-year-old parents in for part of the session and even captured their commentary on audio as they watched the old footage.

"I got to spend four hours with my parents reliving those experiences. If you send it out, what are the odds of you sitting down and looking at four or five hours of video?" he says. "Probably the strongest plus is, otherwise you'll probably never go through the video. It's sort of an 'It's a Wonderful Life' experience, like jeez, I really did have a nice life."Would he recommend doing it yourself?

"This is a stretch for somebody who is not familiar with video capture and connecting all the stuff to your computer. It's not something for a first-time videographer," he says. "If you don't have a good camcorder or a decent projector, it's not worth going out and buying all that stuff. But if you have a pretty decent camcorder and you enjoy the work, it's a pretty good way to spend time."

Improving your memories
Ah, there's the rub. Everybody has treasured videos that are rapidly deteriorating and nobody is likely to have the time or patience to enjoy them until it's too late.

For now, YesVideo has made it easier to enjoy your home videos by breaking down your raw footage into 54 chapters based on color changes and movement, which it then presents on both the cover sheet and the user menu. Later this year, every YesVideo DVD will come loaded with its Digital Scrapbook video editing program that will allow you to edit content and insert still photos, titles and audio, all without installing any software.

"It will allow us to do the heavy lifting, which is getting that content into your PC and then for those 15 percent of consumers who tell us they are interested in editing the content, we're providing the application for those people," Wilson says.

Wilson knows his audience and like this busy dad, they're likely to become customers, too.

"What we found in doing this is that watching home video is really a fun experience and when your library is on DVD, it's really easy to do and you do it more," he says. "We like to describe our clients as people who have double-0s flashing on their VCR. That's our sweet spot."

Bottom line: While it will likely be cost-effective to send your video and film to the pros, you can easily archive your still photo collection to CD or DVD with an inexpensive scanner and a disc burner.

Jay MacDonald is a contributing editor based in Mississippi.

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