Avoiding Disc Disaster

  • Steve Puffenberger
  • Movie Film, Home Video, Transfer Misc.

Avoiding Disc Disaster

How to back up and convert your precious home movie DVD collection

The Problem with Optical Media

Even though “digital transfer” sounds new, the concept has been around for a long time now. Writable discs became available in the year 2000, so the nascent digital transfer business grew up around that format, copying VHS and home movies to DVD for thousands of clients.

That was over 20 years ago!

But there’s a time bomb ticking inside every writable DVD in your closet.  Here’s the problem:

DVDs are a sandwich. Between two layers of plastic, there’s a substrate that contains the tiny pits that represent 1s and 0s, arranged in concentric circles radiating out from the middle. In “manufactured” discs you would buy with movies, that substrate is aluminum, with physical indentations (aka "pits") that represent the 1s and 0s.  It can last 100 years of more. In “writable” discs (DVD-R, DVD+R, DVD-RW, DVD+RW) that substrate is an organic dye layer. To write a disc on your computer or a DVD recorder, a powerful laser zaps the organic dye, leaving a dark spot, not a pit, to indicate a 1 or a 0. That’s why a writable disc drive is called a “burner.” As with all things organic, however, this layer is not permanent. The layer can fade, grow fungus, or develop blank patches, depending on the quality of manufacture. Sure, some disks will last a long time, but others, even from good brands, have been known to develop problems after a very short time.

Net result, manufacturers say writable DVDs are only good for about 10 years.

And then there’s the risks involved in disc storage and handling. Scratches, especially those made by faulty DVD players, can render a disc unreadable. And if someone sits on one and cracks it, game over. (Never place a cracked disc in a player. It will fly apart, destroying the player!)

So, if you had digital transfers made 10 years or so ago, you’re going to want to preserve that investment – ESPECIALLY if you threw away the source tapes or films. 

DIY DVD Backup

So I’m going to give away a trade secret.  You can back up your DVDs at home with just a PC or Mac and an optical drive. You can do it right now without any special software. You just need a big hard disk or flash drive:

  1. Insert the disk into the optical drive on the computer.
  2. If the DVD player app opens, close it.
  3. On PC, open your “This PC” folder, then right click the DVD drive and choose “Open.” On a Mac, open the disk in Finder.
  4. You’ll find two folders on every set-top playable DVD, “AUDIO-TS” and “VIDEO-TS.”  Create a folder on your hard drive, or insert an external drive, and just copy these folders to your destination.  Because all files are named the same on DVDs, you’ll need to create a folder, with a unique name, for each disc you’re backing up. Be sure your destination has enough space; each single-layer DVD can have up to 4.7 Gigabytes of data. Double-layer DVDs can have over 9GB. Do the math and check available space.
  5. Once the contents are copied, BACK UP those folders to yet another external drive or flash drive.  You cannot have too many backups.

NOTE: This will not work for commercial DVDs. While the file structure is the same, copy protection will prevent usable copies from being created.

If the computer has a licensed DVD player app, you can play the files directly. You can open the Video-TS folder and launch any of the .VOB files to watch them in the media player app. 

To recreate the disc for set-top-box play, you will need to use a DVD burning software package, such as Nero.  It will be able to write the contents of the disc to a fresh, blank disc. You can also use Nero or other similar software to copy one disk directly to another without first copying everything to your hard drive.

But if you want to stream the video online, there's another step that has to be done: transcoding.

Converting to Streaming

Let’s face it, DVD is a dying format. It’s hard to even find a DVD player, much less a computer with an optical drive anymore. Before DVD goes the way of VHS, you need to convert, or “transcode” your DVDs to streaming formats.

DVDs are encoded with the MPEG2 codec, a video compression format that’s now 30 years old. It’s not very efficient and creates large files, so it’s not suitable for streaming. Currently the most popular streaming format is known as h.264 or “MPEG-4” (.MP4), but other more efficient formats are right around the corner. Converting to the latest format is called “transcoding.”

It takes special software to transcode video. And it’s always best to start with the “source” format, in this case the MPEG-2 that was on the DVD. Transcoded video will have smaller file sizes with equivalent picture quality.

This is also when you’d want to think about editing. Using editing software, you can edit the VOB files to take out blank footage, shaky camera, or other embarrassing moments, then export to MP4 streaming files.

Once the files are converted and possibly edited, you can then share the MP4 files with your family, either on flash drives or upload to your favorite file sharing service.

The Professional Alternative

So, we just pulled back the curtain on how to back up and preserve your DVD collection. Be forewarned, if you want to DIY, it's complicated and there's a learning curve. But we have an alternative:

Bring your discs to Advent Digitizing.

We have the technology to safely extract the contents* and either burn new, fresh DVDs, or transcode and deliver your content on flash drive, where you can then back it all up to your computer and share it with your family or friends.

Don't wait. Your DVD clocks are ticking.

Start Here to preserve your DVDs

*Not a data recovery service. Discs must be playable.