Format King

In attics, basements and closets everywhere, there are piles of tapes waiting for the ambitious video editor to give them new life.

In the Grimm fairytale The Frog King, a once attractive prince is turned into a frog and then back into the handsome prince he once was. I'm guessing it is no fairytale that many of you have a box or two, if not a closet full of "frogs" – old VHS, 8 mm, Hi8 or even 3/4" videotape that was once valuable to you but now sits unwatched. Your recollection of its content may be vague, but you know the footage was majestic to you and your family when it was shot. Here is something you may not know: The wicked witch of time is concocting ways to destroy that magnetic particle footage, even now as you read. We need to know what magic kiss will reclaim these audio/video princes for us to use and watch today, as well as safeguarding them forever after (or at least the next ten years or so).

The Transfer
You'll need to find a deck that matches your original footage: for example, a 3/4" deck to play the 3/4" tape and to transfer it to a new medium. Mini DV tape is an attractive target format, as an hour of high-quality footage can fit on a tape smaller than a deck of cards and about the cost of a latte. Plus, most editing software is set up to edit DV compression as a default. You'll have a little more trouble editing other modern formats such as MPEG-2 or MPEG-4 files.


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If you don't want the calluses on your fingers from pushing the play, record and stop buttons on your transfer set-up for days or weeks on end, you could pay a transfer house to do the work. It will cost you. It will be much cheaper to rent, borrow or buy a deck for your old formats and do it yourself. VHS, 8mm and Hi8 cameras can be easily bought used; just make sure they work. Generally, it's safer to buy locally as opposed to an Internet outlet such as eBay. You may even be able to borrow old format decks or cameras from local community colleges, high schools or community television stations.

The Uprez
With your footage now stored on Mini DV, it is easily ingested into your computer. If you've grown accustomed to the look of 500 lines of DV video, you may be a bit shocked at your 70's, 80's and 90's resolution. Fear not, there is uprezing software that can improve your image a bit. We have tested Red Giant's Instant HD (v 1.0, $99) with pleasing results. It works within Premiere Pro, After Effects and Final Cut Pro. Another program that upconverts footage, at a substantially steeper price, is Algolith's AlgoSuite Format Converter ($595). Back in the day, I exported video frame by frame, imported them into Photoshop and batch uprezed them, but I'd rather spend the c-note and have a program like Instant HD do the work.

If your old VHS footage makes your viewers seasick from the camera's lack of an optical stabilizer, there are many ways to steady your image in post. Like the uprez options, there are do-it-yourself, extremely time-consuming methods, as well as software choices available. In most editing programs, an editor can zoom into a shot (i.e., enlarge the source material), leaving some room around the border to adjust the frame up/down and/or right/left. If the camera was meant to be more or less "locked down" when it was shot, you can pick an object or part of an object that was stationary. Place a small piece of gaff tape or sticky notepaper on your monitor on one point in the footage as your anchor. You will need to adjust the picture – moving it up, down, right, left – so that the chosen point returns to that piece of tape every so often. After adjusting the frame, place a key frame to anchor the image; the more key frames the better. Depending on how bad the shaky camera is, you should be able to smooth out the image somewhat. It's time consuming and not perfect, but it could save a shot.

Old Glitches
We've had a good amount of fun making pristine Mini DV footage look like old film by adding scratches, hair, mold, burns and even sprocket jumps to the clips. Sometimes "dumbing down" your Mini DV footage, even if just to a small degree, will make it easier to match your new shots with your old. But erasing old video imperfections is a bit more difficult. Making new video look like 70's era footage or vice versa is a bit trickier. The problems introduced by old video formats are a bit different: usually under-saturated colors, bleeding colors (red being the worst) and dropout from the metal particles on the lower quality tapes. I have not found a way to eliminate bleeding reds, and fixing dropouts is possible by painting in the "divots" frame-by-frame in a program like Photoshop, but that will take you some time. Fixing brightness, contrast, color levels/balance and saturation, however, are commonplace in today's editing programs. You won't get your old VHS footage to look as good as Mini DV, but you can make it match a bit closer. Check out the filters and effects with your program. Look for multiple color correct tools, De-interlace, Image Stabilizer, Sharpen, Brightness and Contrast, Desaturate, Gamma Correction, Levels and many more effects and filters that can improve old footage and "make old" new footage.

It will take a bit of experimentation and practice to get comfortable with this digital first-aid. You may want to consider buying a how-to book or DVD to help you learn these elaborate tools and filters. I wish we could tell you to use so-and-so filter at 70% and your VHS would look like Mini DV, but it is not that easy. This is not simple stuff, but your videos will benefit greatly once you learn how to use these filters, effects and plug-ins. Those VHS, 8mm, Hi8 and 3/4" frogs are waiting to be princes once again.

Morgan Paar is a nomadic producer, shooter and editor currently making documentaries in South America.


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