Importing Footage from Non-DV Tapes

We live in a transitional period. Millions of the world’s existing camcorders and VCRs require VHS, VHS-C, or 8 mm cassettes—that is, analog tapes instead of digital.

DV camcorders are rapidly catching up; they’re the only kind people buy these days. But in the meantime, potential video editors face a very real problem: how to transfer into iMovie the footage they shot before the DV era. Fortunately, this is fairly easy to do if you have the right equipment. You can take any of these four approaches, listed roughly in order of preference.


When you use any of these approaches, iMovie won’t be able to chop up the video into individual scene clips automatically, as it does for DV tapes. That’s because old analog camcorders didn’t stamp every frame of every shot with an invisible time code, so iMovie doesn’t know when you stopped the camcorder.

Approach 1: Use a Recent Sony or Canon Camcorder

If you’re in the market for a new digital camcorder, here’s a great idea: Buy a Sony or Canon MiniDV camcorder. Most current models offer analog-to-digital passthrough conversion. In other words, the camcorder itself acts as a media converter that turns the signal from your old analog tapes into a digital one that you can record and edit in iMovie.

The footage never hits a DV tape. Instead, it simply plays from your older VCR or camcorder directly into the Macintosh. (Not all Sony and Canon camcorders have this feature, so ask before you buy. And on some models, you must use the camcorder’s on-board menu system to enable the live passthrough.)

If you’ve got a drawerful of older tapes, such a camcorder is by far the most elegant and economical route, especially if you’re shopping for a new camcorder anyway.

Approach 2: Record onto Your DV Camcorder

Even if your newish digital camcorder doesn’t offer real-time analog-to-digital conversion, it may have analog inputs that let you record your older material onto a MiniDV tape in your new camcorder. If so, your problem is solved.

  1. Unplug the FireWire cable from the DV camcorder.

    Most camcorders’ analog inputs switch off when a FireWire cable is hooked up.

  2. Connect RCA cables from the Audio Output and Video Output jacks on the side of your older camcorder or VCR. Connect the opposite ends to the analog inputs of your DV camcorder.

    Figure 4-17 illustrates this arrangement. Put a blank DV tape into your DV camcorder.


    If both your old camcorder and your DV camcorder have S-video connectors (a round, dime-sized jack), use them instead. S-video connections offer higher quality than RCA connections. (Note that an S-video cable doesn’t conduct sound, however. You still have to connect the red and white RCA cables to carry the left and right stereo sound channels.)

  3. Switch both camcorders into VTR or VCR mode.

    You’re about to make a copy of the older tape by playing it into the camcorder.

    By now, every fiber of your being may be screaming, “But analog copies make the quality deteriorate!” Relax. You’re only making a single-generation copy. Actually, you’re only making half an analog copy; it’s being recorded digitally, so you lose only half as much quality as you would with a normal VCR-to-VCR duplicate. In other words, you probably won’t be able to spot any picture deterioration. And you’ll have the footage in digital format now forever, ready to make as many copies as you want with no further quality degradation.

    The Canopus box requires no external power because it draws its juice from the Mac, via Fire-Wire cable. It also offers double sets of inputs and outputs, so you can keep your TV and VCR hooked up simultaneously. And it can handle both NTSC (North American) or PAL (European) video signals.

    Figure 4-17. The Canopus box requires no external power because it draws its juice from the Mac, via Fire-Wire cable. It also offers double sets of inputs and outputs, so you can keep your TV and VCR hooked up simultaneously. And it can handle both NTSC (North American) or PAL (European) video signals.

  4. Press the Record button on the DV camcorder, and press Play on the older camcorder or VCR.

    You can monitor your progress by watching the LCD screen of your camcorder. Remember that the DV cassette generally holds only 60 minutes of video, compared with 2 hours on many previous-format tapes. You may have to change DV cassettes halfway through the process.

When the transfer is finished, you can rewind the newly recorded DV cassette in the DV camcorder and then import it into iMovie exactly as described in this chapter.

Approach 3: Use a Media Converter

If your DV camcorder doesn’t have analog inputs, you can buy an analog-to-digital converter—a box that sits between your Mac and your VCR or older camcorder. It’s an unassuming half-pound gray box, about 3 by 5 inches. Its primary features include analog audio and video (and S-video) inputs, which accommodate your older video gear, and a FireWire jack, whose cable you can plug into your Mac.

Your options include the Canopus ADVC-55 (, $215, shown in Figure 4-17), and the Director’s Cut Take 2 box (; about $350).

In either case, you’ll be very pleased with the video quality. And when it comes to converting older footage, the media-converter approach has a dramatic advantage over DV camcorders with analog inputs: You have to sit through the footage only once. As your old VCR or camcorder plays the tape through the converter, the Mac records it simultaneously. (Contrast with Approach 2, which requires you to play the footage twice: once to the DV camcorder, and then from there to the Mac.)

Unfortunately, you can’t control these devices using iMovie’s playback controls, as described in this chapter. Instead, you must transfer your footage manually by pressing Play on your VCR or old camcorder and then clicking Import on the iMovie screen. In that way, these converters aren’t as convenient as an actual DV or Digital8 camcorder.

Approach 4: Use a Digital8 Camcorder

Sony’s Digital8 family of camcorders accommodate 8 mm, Hi-8, and Digital8 tapes, which are 8 mm cassettes recorded digitally. (Low-end models may not offer this feature, however, so ask before you buy.) Just insert your old 8 mm or Hi-8 cassettes into the camcorder and proceed as described in this chapter. iMovie never needs to know that the camcorder doesn’t contain a DV cassette.

Actually, a Digital8 camcorder grants you even more flexibility than that. Most Digital8 camcorders also have analog inputs, which let you import footage from your VCR or other tape formats, just as described in Approach 2.

Get iMovie 6 & iDVD: The Missing Manual now with the O’Reilly learning platform.

O’Reilly members experience live online training, plus books, videos, and digital content from nearly 200 publishers.