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DVD Deliverance

Are your treasured home movies fading to black? Here's how to preserve them on long-lasting DVDs.

By Chris Tucker

The Great Digital Revolution rolls on.

You notice it when you visit your local movie rental store. Each time you enter, the premium real estate displays more and more DVDs, while that aging stand ard of yesteryear, the movie on VHS, is relegated to the back aisles and the sale tables. That "V" in VHS may as well stand for "vanishing."

But the DVD revolution isn't just a matter for Blockbuster, Inc. and other purveyors of movie and consumer technology. Increasingly, it's a matter of concern for millions of Americans who have valuable memories residing on videotapes, 8mm, 16mm and other analog media.

Yes, there they are, piled up in your closets and cabinets - the wedding tapes, the bar mitzvahs, the triumphant land ing of a whopper billfish, the family timeline that stretches from the kids' first steps to their high school graduations.

And of course you're heard the dire warnings. The experts don't agree on just how long magnetic tape can last - some say it starts to deteriorate in less than 10 years, some give it a longer lifespan - but everyone agrees that DVDs last far longer than any analog media. So if you have felt pangs of loss watching what time has done to those old videotapes, it's time to jump on the DVD train.

Going forward, of course, you can migrate to the future with a digital camcorder from Canon, Panasonic, Sony or another brand . Prices on most units are still north of $600, but they're coming down. But a new camcorder won't do anything for that towering stack of videotapes you already have. For that, you've got two choices: Hire someone to convert them to DVD, or do it yourself.

Saying "Yes" to DVD
Most cities of any size are home to services that convert old media to DVD. I had tried a couple of locals a year or so back, but found the price way too high for the results. Then I heard about a national company called YesVideo, based in Santa Clara, California, which transfers any kind of analog movie to DVD. With my heart in my mouth, I sent YesVideo two tapes containing 10- to 15-year old film of our wedding, our daughter's first few hours in the hospital, the morning we her home from the hospital, her first nap at home, her second nap at home - well, you get the picture. This was precious cargo.

About three weeks later I received two DVD-Rs containing our footage. Even before watching the DVDs, I was impressed by the plastic cases covered with thumbnail photos from the tapes. My pleasure grew when I slid the DVD into the player and saw a menu of chapter scenes; there were my wife, her parents and my now-deceased mother at our wedding rehearsal dinner. Once click and I was reliving the happy day.

Overall, the images on the DVD were crisp and the sound was good. Obviously, there's a GIGO (Garbage In, Garbage Out) factor here; if you made bad lighting miscues on the original, or dropped the camera into the punch bowl at your dad's retirement party, no conversion magic can make everything right.

YesVideo uses patented algorithms, not human beings, to convert the video. The technology can recognize scene changes, thus "deciding" when to insert chapter breaks. YesVideo also creates three short music videos at the end of each DVD. The music - jazz, classical and rock - plays behind a selection of "best" scenes chosen by the brainy software. (I'd love to know what criteria are programmed in for these selections, but the company isn't talking.)

It's nice that our daughter will have these DVDs to show her children, but I've also discovered a more immediate benefit: We watch the old movies more now that they're on DVD. It's that familiar tech phenomenon: Now that an alternative exists, fast-forwarding a VHS to find a favorite scene or to skip some boring stuff seems not just passé but irritating.

I'm not alone in like YesVideo. Dr. Warren Nadel, a retired dentist in New York City, entrusted the company with several reels of 8mm film he shot between 1958 and 1962, covering his courtship, wedding and honeymoon. About 20 years ago he had paid a service to make a videotape from the 8mm, but even that video has faded badly. Nadel sent off his original film to YesVideo and was quite impressed with the picture quality of the DVD he received. He surprised his wife with the gift on their 42 nd anniversary this year.

"It's really magnificent," says Nadel, who paid about $160 for a conversion package. "One of the videos used 'Ave Maria,' and it was so beautiful it brought tears to our eyes. I don't know how the computer picked those scenes."

YesVideo can convert just about any format to DVD, including 8mm, 16mm, VHS, Digital 8, Hi-8, Betamax, DVCam and others. To get started, check to buy a mail-in kit for $25-$50, depending on your format. The mailers are also sold at Fry's Electronics, Circuit City and online at, or you can pay a fee to have Wal-Mart, Target, CVS or other participating retailers mail in your film. Prices, posted on the website, vary according to format. Movie film and 35mm slides are more expensive than videotape. In addition to the DVD, YesVideo can also create YesPix, a CD carrying up to 200 digital photos chosen by the computer. The cost is $9.99.

For Do-It-Yourselfers
For people who love the challenge of new technology, or who may be leery of shipping pieces of their past across the country, some ingenious hardware and software bring DVD conversion to the home front. One of the most popular devices, Hewlett Packard's DVD Movie Writer dc4000 ($300) combines a DVD+R/+R/CD-R/RW recorder with analog-capture capabilities. Using the various inputs (S-Video, composite video and stereo audio input), you can connect your analog or digital camcorder (or a VCR, if you like) to the unit.

From there, the helpful HP Transfer Wizard ushers you through the conversion process. I found the capture-and -burn relatively painless and fast. The wizard even helps design a title menu and box cover. The Movie Writer also comes with software for editing, adding music, making slideshows and , for the ambitious, creating montages of birthdays and other events.

The HP Movie Writer isn't the only option for the do-it-yourselfer. Other good choices include ADS Tech's DVD Xpress ($129), a USB 2.0 device that links a camcorder or VCR to a PC and Pinnacle Systems' Studio MovieBox DV hardware/software combo ($250).

The bad news? The clock is ticking on your video collection. The good news? Converting to DVD slows down the clock while making it easier - and a lot more fun - to stroll down memory lane.

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