A Quick Tutorial on
Getting Video to DVD

by Roger MacBride Allen

Return to Index

  Table of Contents


The following discussion assumes that you have VHS or compact VHS-C or 8mm or some other format of analog recording tape that you want to convert to DVD. Copying your old videotapes to DVD can be a very good idea, for several reasons.

The downside is that it takes some time, equipment, cash and effort to do the conversions. However, assuming you already have the computer equipment in hand, it needn't been too expensive or difficult. Let's go through the basic steps very quickly, and then examine them in more detail. The basic things you need to do are as follows:

Assumptions. We're assuming you have a Windows-based computer with a big enough hard drive to store video (the files are HUGE!) and a DVD burner. Your computer might or might not have USB-2 or Firewire ports. If not, you'll have to install a card that provides them. The cards are cheap, and the installation is quite straightforward. The hardest part should be opening your computer case. Also, at the bare minimum you'll have to be running Windows 98, because, as nothing before that will support Firewire or USB-2, which, as we shall see, you will need. (There are fiddly exceptions to that statement, such as funky Win95 drivers that might nearly almost work, but they aren't worth the hassle.) It would be a very good thing to be running Windows XP, because XP's file management system allows for files of almost any size. Win98 limits you to a 4 gigabyte file size. That sounds like a lot, but it's not much more than 17 minutes of full-quality video in the AVI format. (The process of making a DVD will compress the files drastically: you should be able to get one to two hours of video on a single 4.7 gigabyte DVD disk.) We're also assuming that you'll wind up with some sort of software on your system that can do video capture, video editing, disk authoring, and disk burning. See my long meandering article on authoring programs for more on that subject.

Before we get started, however, have a look at this table, which will give at least a rough idea of what some of the cables you'll need look like.

A Quick and Dirty
Guide to Cables.

Click on any image for a somewhat larger view.

A few notes:

The cable shown is for USB, not USB-2. There are other types of USB cable for other purposes, but this is the type used to link my camera to a computer. USB-2 cables look the same, but might be made to a rather higher quality specification. I'm not sure.

Firewire cables, and the Firewire standard, are also known as i-link and as IEEE-1394. All three refer to exactly the same thing.

The red, white and yellow plugs shown in the image of the RCA cable are 100% standard. The other end is Sony's adaptor to pipe those signals into its camcorders. Other camera makers likely use different adaptors.

The colors don't really matter that much: the cables themselves are identical, with one execption. Often the yellow video cable is heavier gauge, allowing it to carry the more complex video signal more smoothly. Therefore, it's best to stick with the color coding.

USB Cable. Small plug for camera, large to computer

S-Video Cable

Firewire. Small is four-pin, large is six-pin. Camera end is often four-pin.

RCA phono plug adaptor cable. Small pointed plug goes into jack on Sony camcorder. Yellow jacket is audio. White is left or mono audio, red is right audio. (Unless I have left/right red/white mixed up. It doesn't really matter as long as the sound gets there.

  return to top

return to table of contents

Converting Video & Importing Video to Computer

The most important task is the first, and perhaps the easiest: converting your analog video tapes to digital format. Why is it important? Because once you've got the video into digital, deterioration will, for all intents and purposes, stop. You can make a copy of a copy of a copy of the original, and it will preserve all of the original's quality. (We're talking about the deterioration of the video signal on the tape here, as distinct from the tape itself wearing out. Obviously, if the medium holding the digital video is physically damaged, the zeroes and ones that make up the digital recording might become unreadable.)

There are three ways to do the conversion, all fairly closely related. You'll need at least one piece of new hardware to do any of them: either a digital camcorder, or a digital capture device. As we'll see, it is possible to combine the first and second steps of the process. There are pros and cons to combining them, as we shall also see.

Option 1, Part 1: Copy Analog to Digital Tape
new hardware needed: digital camcorder

If you have a digital camcorder, it will have some sort of port that will allow you to record a video signal that comes in, not via the camcorder's lens, but from an external source. You'll be able to plug a cable into the camcorder, and plug the other end of the cable into a video sources -- such as your old analog camcorder, or your VCR. Your camcorder will take the analog signal, convert to digital, and record it to digital tape.

The process is very simple: plug the cables together, load a blank tape into the camcorder and the tape you want to copy into the output device (VCR or analog camcorder) and hit play on the source and record on the camcorder.

A few fairly obvious caveats: first, make sure that any digital camcorder you buy has this feature. I can't believe anyone sells one that doesn't have it, but it never hurts to be sure. Second, use the highest quality connection that you can. You usually have at least the RCA phono-jack outputs. There should be two or three plugs: one for video and either one or two for audio. You might also have an S Video plug. S-Video should give you better quality than the RCA plugs, but (a) you have to have S-Video plugs on both source and output and (b) the S-Video signal carries video only, and not audio, which means you'll still have to use the RCA audio jacks to get the sound in. Third, be sure to test your hookup by recording and playing back a brief section of video before trying to copy a hour of tape and then discovering it didn't work. And, perhaps the most important tip for improved quality: if at all possible, use the original tape, not a copy. If you've dubbed an analog 8mm tape to VHS, dig out the 8mm. Unless you've poured coffee on it and left it out in the sun, it will be much better quality than the VHS dub.

The main advantage to starting out by copying to digital tape is that the tape itself can act as a backup later on. For about five bucks per one hour tape, you have a fresh, semi-archival copy of the original tape. If your computer hard drive crashes and all your DVDs are stolen, you'll still have your video in pristine condition. The other advantage is that the process is simple, and you're not doing two steps at once. The downside is that, yes, it will cost you for the tapes -- and for the time. You'll have to play the digital tapes back to get the video stored on the computer: in other words, you'll have to play everything twice.

Option 2: Use Digital Camcorder as Pass-Through Converter
new hardware needed: digital camcorder, Firewire or USB-2 port on computer

Many, though far from all, digital camcorders have a digital pass-through conversion feature. Simply put, the camcorder converts the analog signal from your video source into digital, and passes it along into the computer, without ever recording it to digital tape.

The hookup between the video source and the camcorder should be identical to option one, discussed above. The hookup between the camcorder and the computer is going to be one cable only.

Probably you'll use a Firewire cable, as that is more or less the standard for digital video. (Note: Firewire, IEE-1394 and i-link are all different names for the same thing. Various companies have their own reasons for calling this standard for cables and ports different things, but they are all the same. Also, be aware that Firewire ports might be four-pin (teeny) or six-pin (slightly less teeny). My Sony camera has a four-pin Firewire plug. I need a cable with four pins on one end and six on the other to connect my camera to my computer.

It's possible that your camera might go with USB-2 (which is much faster than the original USB). USB-2 is fast enough to use for real-time full-quality video, but I'm not so sure about USB. Some of the video capture devices discussed below use USB to move video to the computer, but that might not be the best way to go. USB-2 should work just fine. All that being said, Firewire is pretty much the standard for digital video uses..

You'll have to dig through your camcorder's manual for exactly how they want you to do things, but once you have the cables connected, the camcorder doesn't have to do anything except be on. The tricky bit will be running the video capture software on the computer. You'll have to have this program running, and start its capture procedure, before you get your source videotape playing. It's the same idea as in option 1: hit play on source, and record on the recorder -- except it's the computer that's doing the recording.

Option 3: Use a dedicated capture device
new hardware needed: external video capture device and matching computer port, or internal capture card

Various companies (Pinnacle/Dazzle, Hauppauge, ATI, etc.) make video capture devices. Basically, they use the same techniques as a camcorder to convert an analog signal to digital and pass it along, but they leave out all the other bits of the camcorder. I have no hands-on experience with these devices, but from all I have seen, they are pretty straightforward, and hook up pretty much as under option 2, merely substituting the capture device for the camcorder. I would vote for a Firewire-based device over USB or USB-2, simply because Firewire is the de-facto digital video standard. I would certainly prefer USB-2 over USB. There are also internal cards that plug into your computer's motherboard. Mostly these internal cards have other jobs as their primary function. They are often TV-tuner cards, and often have pretty complex drivers. Unless you're getting an internal card for some other reason, I don't quite see the need to use an internal device for this purpose, especially if you're not likely to be using day in and day out, but only once in a while.

You'll want to check on this point carefully before you buy, but most of these capture devices come bundled with video capture and/or video editing software. The quality of the software can vary a lot, so do your homework. More than likely, there will be three or four programs, most of them truncated in some way, or last year's version. You also might get programs that are such dogs the manufacturers have trouble giving them away. Sometimes you get lucky and get the full, current version of a top-rated program. (When that happens, it's likely that the capture device or the internal card is being bundled with the software!)

Option 1, Part 2
new hardware needed: Firewire port

Just to round things out, part 2 of option 1 requires you to play back the video tape and capture it to your computer. This, by the way, would be the identical procedure as importing an original digital camcorder tape into your computer. One nifty thing here is that any even remotely competent video capture or video capture/edit program will allow you to control your digital camcorder from inside the program. You click a mouse on this or that spot on the screen to stop,start, rewind and fast-foward the tape.

At the end of any of these processes, you end up in the same place: you'll have a honking HUGE file on your computer in the AVI format. Note: They are several zillion flavors of AVI that can result in different file sizes.. We'll ignore this troublesome fact for the time being, as your computer system ought to be managing this behind the scene for you.

Note: at some point in the processes described below -- probably several times -- you're almost certain to face a computer that's just sitting there, chugging along through some sort of rendering or conversion process. This can go on for hours. Try and find ways to make it happen during dinner, or overnight, or while you're at work. You'll likely get another dose of waiting around when it comes time to convert the video to MPEG-2 format, and a rather shorter wait or two while the authoring program writes the disk image to your hard drive, and again when your burner copies those files from your hard drive to the final disk

So, anyway, now that you have an AVI file of your edited movie, what can you do with it?

  return to top

return to table of contents

Editing Your Video

What can you do with your AVI? Pretty darned near everything. That's the good news, and the bad news. (Bad news because you can take forever on it.) . Given the ease of modern video editing on the PC, and the sketchy quality of most home movies, it most cases it would be almost criminal not to do at least a quick clean-up of the raw material. Editing can improve just about any home movie.

(A Quick Digression)
(The final format of your DVD will be based on MPEG-2 -- so why, you might ask, don't I start out with MPEG-2 during capture and editing and save some steps? Here's why: MPEG-2 is not much good for editing, because it achieves its high degree of compression by combining several frames into GOPs (groups of pictures). To oversimplify a bit, if you tape Fred standing in front of a blank motionless wall, an MPEG version of the scene will store a picture of the wall in the first picture in a given GOP. Then, in subsequent pictures in the GOP, it will only store a copy of what's moved since the last picture -- Fred's hand waving, for example. The playback system will merge this with the motionless image of the wall. This trick allows a 20 or 30 gigabyte AVI file to be compressed down into a high-quality 4 gigabyte DVD. However, because it eliminates single frames, it also makes precise editing much more difficult, or even impossible. Because AVI (or DV -- digital video) format is one-frame-at-a-time, you can use it to do highly precise frame-by-frame editing. End of digression.)

But you do much more than basic editing with a video editing program and your AVI files. You can clean up the audio. You can add a sound-track. You can get rid of the boring stuff, and reorder the good stuff so it actually makes sense. You can add titles. There are lots of video capture/video editing programs out there. I use Pinnacle's Studio 8. It's only fair to note that it seems many people swear by Pinnacle Studio -- and many swear at it. I like it, and it seems to be quite stable on my system. Supposedly it can crash a lot, but I haven't had that problem.

Once you have your video more or less the way you want it, you have lots of options: burning it to DVD is only one of them. You can save it in a format suitable for posting on the web (but it's going to be a huge file). You can output it back out to digital video tape, or even plain old VHS tape. To do so, basically all that is required is that you run the hook-ups described above backwards, for example hitting playback on the computer and record on the VCR. Copying it out to digital video tape gives you another perfect-quality backup. If you ever want to re-use your edited version in some other compliation, you'll have a best-quality edited version stored away.

However, the focus of this article is on getting your video to a DVD, so let's stay with that.

  return to top

return to table of contents

Converting to MPEG-2

We've been assuming that your movies are going to be in AVI format, but that is not always the case. For various reasons, you might have movies in MPEG-1 or MPEG-2 or DV or Quicktime, or some other format. What DVDs use are specifically formatted MPEG-2 files. Thus, at some point in the process of creating your DVD, your movie files are going to be converted to DVD-compliant MPEG-2 files. (Not all MPEG-2s are DVD compliant, either. You might have to convert from MPEG-2 to MPEG-2!)

Some of the authoring program will allow you to import AVIs, MPEGs, and maybe some other formats. In such cases, the authoring program will do the conversion to MPEG-2 for you. However there are a few gotchas. (Aren't there always?) Your authoring program might not accept all AVIs and MPEGs. Some authoring programs are very fussy about the specs for the files they will accept --and there are many, many variants of both the AVI and MPEG-2 format. The trouble is that a lot of the all-in-one consumer-based programs you might use to generate AVIs and MPEGS don't give you much ability to adjust the file parameters. In some circumstances it can be all but impossible to make the files acceptable to the authoring program.

With any luck at all, you won't run up against this problem, and your all-in-one program will convert your files smoothly and produce acceptable results that are compatible with the rest of your software. But if your luck runs out, there are work-arounds. Because MPEGs are what a DVD actually has on it, just about every authoring program will import DVD-compliant MPEG-2 files. You can take your edited video files, convert them in a stand-alone MPEG-2 converter program first, and then import the MPEG-2s into your authoring program. Even if you don't have to do such an external conversion, you might want to: typically, when compared to the conversion ability of a disk authoring program, a specialized converter will be able to accept a wider variety of variants of the source format, and allow you to set very precise parameters for the output format. Futhermore, a specialized converter will likely produce a far better-looking MPEG-2 file.

For the truly oddball conversions, see dvdrhelp.com for a frighteningly complete list of conversion utilties. For the more straightforward conversion of AVI to MPEG-2, you might want to look to a specialized stand-alone conversion program. . See my notes on the program I use, TMPEGEnc in the general issues article on this website,. Equal time department: Cinemacraft makes Cinema Craft Encoder Basic, which some users prefer. CCE Basic converts AVI, DV, and Quicktime files, while TMPEGEnc only handles AVI.  Both have demo versions available for download.

To sum up: if you just have to get things exactly right, or if you need to tweak your MPEGs in order to make them look as good as possible, or if you have no other way to make your movie files acceptable to a particular authoring program, you'll want an stand-alone MPEG-2 converter program.

See the listing of Funky Formats in my general issues article for more information on the various file formats.

  return to top

return to table of contents

Authoring the DVD

A typical disk authoring program will ask you to import your movies, as discussed above in the conversion section. It will then walk you through the process of designing menus, setting up the order you want things to happen on the disk, setting chapter points, and so on. If you haven't given the authoring program MPEG-2 files, it will then have to convert everything to MPEG-2. This can take a long times -- quite likely several hours. The disk authoring program will then bundle the MPEG-2 files into the VOB files and  other related files that will make up the actual DVD. VOB just stands for Video Object. A VOB is just the box that MPEG-2s and related files (chapter point markers, audio streams, subtitles, etc.) go into on a DVD. Thee is some woodsy folklore to the effect that you can often simply rename a VOB file with the MPG or MPEG file name extension (e.g. MOVIE.VOB becomes MOVIE.MPG) and then view or edit file as you would a regular MPEG.. I haven't tried this.) The creation of the VOBs files, and thus the actual creation of the DVD disk image to your hard drive, is a relatively fast process, and should take some small fraction of the running time of the DVD to get done.

A big point to bear in mind at this point is that disk authoring has precious little to do with video editing. Video editing is the process of developing a finished video sequence. Disk authoring is the process of designing a disk that will contain that, and perhaps other, video sequences, setting up a way to navigate through the disk's contents, and the process of converting the files into the appropriate formats, storing the resulting files to hard drive. Disk burning is likewise a completely distinct process from disk authoring. It consists solely of taking the files generated by your disk authoring program and copying them to a DVD (or CD, or whatever.)

Video editing is making a shiny new movie. Disk authoring is designing the container for that movie. And disk burning is passing those design instructions to the burner, which follows them to actually create the disk.

There are programs that will do video capture and video editing and disk authoring and disk burning, but. to paraphrase what Oscar Wilde said about thinking while one talks, no one can do two things at once and do them both well. The consumer level products that do it all, or (more commonly) do authoring and burning) tend to focus on one part of the process and leave the rest as an afterthought. See my article on disk authoring for further rants on this subject, and a lot of other digressions on what you'll want from a DVD -- and thus, what you'll want from a program that creates DVDs. See also my even less-well organized article on general issues in disk authoring and burning.

All that being said, better is very often the enemy of good, or good enough. If you have a DVD burner, more than likely it shipped with some sort of software for doing video capture, video editing, disk authoring, and disk burning. You might as well give that software a try -- but do so on a small, short project. Do a five-minute movie, and not a 27-part 36-hour 18-disk saga of your family. If the software you've got works for you, stick with it. If not, start shopping. As discussed in my disk authoring article, there are lots of programs out there, and if the one you have doesn't do what you want, you can always buy one of the others.

One final tip: a lot of these software packages-- as well as the video capture devices discussed above -- are available on Ebay at a fraction of the retail price. Mostly these offers are for "bundle" software that didn't get sold. Just be sure you're not getting a "special edition" version with half the features deleted.

  return to top

return to table of contents


This article is intended as a quick sprint through some of the main procedures, and some of the main concepts, in moving a movie from analong tape to a DVD. It might not have given all the answers, but it should at least give you an idea of what the questions are, as well as some leads as to where to go next. Making a DVD might seem like a daunting task, but if you break it down into the various smaller tasks, it is really pretty straightforward. Go give it a try.

  return to top

return to table of contents