The Bonus Challenge

Although it’s relatively straightforward to use HandBrake to convert a specific video file, I’ve found that there are further complications when it comes to dealing with a complete DVD. Very few of my DVDs have 1 single file; and many of them have 10 or more – some as many as 25+. A decision has to be made for each file as to whether or not to convert it. Unfortunately, each file is only identified by a number, though HandBrake does also provide 10 snapshot stills across each one together with its playing time. To identify what a file contains, you have to match this set of clues with the information provided on the DVD box and the DVD itself.

The ’Billy Elliot’ DVD provides a simple illustration of the elements of this challenge: the files were numbered 1 – 6 but HandBrake was only able to read 4 of them – files 4 and 5 were missing from HandBrake’s list. The file with the longest playing time – 1:45:49 – was obviously the film itself. From the HandBrake stills, I was able to see that the 2-minute file was probably a cinema trailer and the 14 second file was the Universal moving logo at the beginning of the film. The DVD box advertised the following Bonus Features: Breaking Free Featurette, Theatrical Trailer, Cast & Film Biographies, Interactual (whatever that means), and Production Notes. Since the remaining file read by Handbrake had a playing length of 00:21:36 I deduced that it was likely to be the featurette, and, sure enough, when I did the conversion, that’s what it turned out to be.

The Billy Elliot example was relatively simple. ‘Love Actually’, with 28 files being read by HandBrake was more difficult; and the Special Edition of ‘Titanic’ was like a Sherlock Holmes mystery with two Discs each containing 43 files (of which HandBrake read 41 and 38 respectively) and a DVD box specifying additional material including various commentaries, a spectacular alternative ending, and branching footage while watching the film. Of course, menus are the key navigation aids to all this material when you are watching using a DVD player; but HandBrake doesn’t pick up the menus. So, even if you converted all the files, you would still not be able to recreate the experience offered by playing the DVD. That just seems to be the hard-stop limitation of using a converter program like HandBrake. Of course, the full functionality of the DVD could be recreated if you were prepared to hand-craft code and integrate all the elements together. However, I’m certainly not prepared – or able – to do that.

There’s another factor to be take into account when deciding what files to convert: how much of this extra material is going to be looked at? I’m pretty sure I have never viewed all the extra material  provided on each of the DVDs I’ve watched; and often I’ve never watched any of it. That might be a good indicator of whether I’ll ever want to view it in the future.

Given the complications of multiple unidentified files, and my lack of general interest in ‘bonus features’, I soon decided that I was only going to convert extra material if it was properly assembled and of particular interest. So, for example, for ‘Love Actually’ I converted an extra 37-minute piece of Richard Curtis introducing bits cut out of the film; and for ‘Cabaret’ I also converted the 1972 documentary ‘The re-creation of an era’, and the 1997 documentary ‘Cabaret – a Legend in the Making’. However, for the films ‘The Holiday’, and ‘The Full Monty’, I didn’t convert anything else.

Conversion Alternatives

There are three ways of being able to watch a DVD without a DVD player: either by converting the DVD into a single software file and storing/playing it on your PC; by obtaining that software file from elsewhere and storing/playing it on your PC; or by streaming the movie from an internet service or location. Having established that conversion is a definite possibility, I thought I’d explore the other options.

I started by investigating the five DVDs which claimed to also provide a downloadable version for a limited period. In three cases, specific expiration dates were quoted (02Dec2014, 27Feb2019, and  31Dec2019) – though two of these just said that the download may not be available after the date specified. One of the remaining two specified that the download code “may expire two years after the release of the film”; and the other one simply said “redemption code subject to expiration”. Given these caveats I wasn’t very hopeful as I set about accessing the specified websites to try and obtain the digital copies.

In one case, the website specified no longer existed. In a second case the process took me to the Apple Store after which it hung and I had to abort; after two attempts I gave up and assumed the code had expired. The third one said “Sorry this code has expired”, and the fourth one proclaimed that “Support for digital copy redemption has ceased”. However, the fifth one, despite specifying the 27Feb2019 expiration date, was successful! I put in the voucher code and after confirming it was for the movie Jack Reacher – Never Go Back, it offered me just one provider option – Apple TV. I put in my Apple account info, downloaded iTunes, and, after taking me to the iTunes Store, it said the movie was being transferred to my iCloud library (though there was no sign of it when I looked). However, shortly afterwards it appeared in the Recently Added section of the iTunes app. When I clicked on it, it started to play in a new window. These results are summarised in the table below.

Movie Expiration Date Website Result
The Dark Knight Rises [2012] 02Dec2014 opens as The website has 3 options (ultraviolet technology; a video streaming app; and info about Disney Plus subscriptions). Assumed voucher had expired.
Minority Report [2002] Two years after release None specified: 2nd disc initiates a process requiring the iTunes app, and linking to the Apple Store Apple Store hung and required aborting. Assumed voucher had expired.
The Lady in the Van [2015] 31Dec2019 opens as Got message “Sorry this code has expired”
Jason Bourne [2016] Redemption code subject to expiration Got message “Support for digital copy redemption has ceased”
Jack Reacher – Never Go Back (2016) 27Feb2019

opens as

Put code in and it said “Select a provider” listing one option – Apple TV. I provided my apple account details, downloaded iTunes, was taken to the iTUnes store and the movie appeared in the recently added section of the iTunes app where I was able to play it

Despite being able to actually play the Jack Reacher movie, it is not a stand-alone file. It can only be played from within iTunes. When it is copied out of iTunes, DRM functions (Digital Rights Management) are introduced such that it will only play a series of static scenes. In similar fashion, Amazon applies DRM controls when it offers movies to rent or buy: for both types of purchase, access to the movie is via the Amazon Prime Video app. The files cannot be copied and moved outside the app. So, you are not actually buying the file – just access to it. I believe this is the way all internet sales of movies work; it is not legally possible to acquire the actual video file. Having said that, if you simply want to watch a movie again at some unspecified point in time, then it’s a reasonable assumption that you will be able to find a copy to rent. A quick trawl of Amazon Prime determined that 49 of the 58 titles in my collection are available for rent at prices between 99p and £3.49. I also did a check of Netflix (which provides free access to subscribers) but could find only 6 of the titles.

My conclusion from this rather cursory investigation is that for movies you might want to watch again sometime in the future then it should be possible to rent them relatively cheaply and easily; but that if long term reliable access is required, then conversion by HandBrake is the best option. It goes without saying that you should not pass a converted copy to anyone else. I, personally, always store away the originals of CDs, videos, and books that I copy, to demonstrate proof of ownership.

HandBrake Conversions

The obvious way to dispose of physical DVDs and yet still have them available to view is to convert them to digital format and to store them on a PC or hard drive. In theory, they could then not only be copied to and viewed on any device (such as a tablet or phone), but also viewed on a large screen TV via the domestic wi-fi network. To explore these possibilities, I downloaded the free open-source HandBrake video converter tool (as recommended in issue 664 of the UK ComputerActive magazine).

HandBrake complies with Digital Rights Management (DRM) legislation and so is not able to circumvent standard copy protection measures built into most movie DVDs. However, a separate piece of open-source software called libdvdcss-2.dll is freely available to overcome this problem.  This is effectively a plug-in to HandBrake and simply needs to be placed into the HandBrake program folder. I duly installed both HandBrake and libdvdcss-2.dll and set about trying to convert some DVDs.

I had a minor problem getting started as, after completing my first conversion, Handbrake seemed to be unable to read a large number of the DVDs. I eventually found that the problem was something to do with pointing to the correct file for HandBrake to inspect: I’d been selecting the “D: DVD name” entry in the Source Selection menu, and this was producing a screen announcing “No valid source or titles found”. The problem was rectified by choosing the Folder option in the Source Selection menu and then selecting the “D:DVD name” that appeared in the Windows Explorer menu. I don’t really understand why this made a difference – but everything worked fine doing it that way….

Overall, I found ndBrake very easy and effective to use. It was able to read all but one of the 54 DVDs in my collection. The one that it couldn’t handle was designed to enable the downloading of a copy of the film ‘Minority Report’ so there was actually no film on the disk for HandBrake to identify. I was unable to even try to convert any of the four Blu-Ray titles in my collection as my DVD player simply won’t read them. In the course of the exercise, I successfully converted 19 of the 54 DVDs to MP4 using the standard presets advised by HandBrake, and encountered no problems in doing so with each conversion generally taking between 20 minutes and half an hour. I shall comment on the quality of converted files later on in this process after I’ve tested viewing them on my TV.

I decided to limit the number of DVD conversions at this stage because of the time required to undertake the conversion, and because of the large file sizes being generated. The films I have converted are either ones I created to get me started with HandBrake; or ones I definitely know I want to keep; or ones that I want to see before deciding what to keep. The 19 titles I converted take up some 18.5 Gigabytes and play for a total of about 40 hours. I shall return to the question of what converted DVDs I want to keep after I’ve investigated some related issues such as whether they can be easily obtained through streaming services, whether the converted files play successfully on the TV via wi-fi; and whether the quality of the converted files is good enough.

One final note on the converting experience: I’ve had to handle the DVDs a lot during the process and this has definitely induced a sense of appreciation of their characteristics. No doubt this is partly due to the stirring of good memories of some of the films; but its not just that. These products with their different designs – triple fold overs, slip cases, multiple DVD holders, metallic casings, eye-catching graphics, special editions, and the odd booklet – do have their own kind of kudos. But I must restrain myself… we’ve decided to dispose of these physical goods and that’s that…..

Hardware considerations

A few days ago, I tried using the external DVD player that I bought to go with my laptop, to play a film on my Smart LG TV. I discovered that the DVD player only has a USB interface and that films on DVDs won’t play without an HDMI interface. So, to be able to play any of our collection of DVDs , we would have to buy an HDMI-capable DVD player which a quick search of the net determined would cost in the region of £30 – £50. Unlike my current very compact and easy-to-store external DVD drive (measuring some 14x14x1.5 cm), such beasts are larger, may employ a pop-up lid as opposed to a sliding drawer, and require an external power source. These are all factors which would affect the aesthetics of the piece of furniture on which our TV sits: it would mean accommodating an extra big black box with two lots of additional wiring for a facility that might be only rarely used – and this after having been pleased to get rid of our previous very large DVD recorder box. I guess it could be kept in a drawer and just installed temporarily when needed – but setting it up wouldn’t be easy because there is little space to get behind the 65inch TV screen to access HDMI ports and power points. Of course, such a device could also be used on my laptop – but I don’t really think I’d want to watch films on my laptop screen or even the 27-inch screen on my study desk. In fact, I wouldn’t want to watch films in my study: movie-watching is more of a relaxing lounge activity.

Many of the above factors are the reasons why we decided to dispense with a video recorder and the physical DVDs in the first place; so, I’m not really envisaging going down that route again. Nevertheless, it will be useful to have a clear understanding of all the possibilities and constraints when I get down to deciding which films, if any, I particularly want to keep and in what format.

Musings about video collections

When I saw my first movies in the late 1950s, there was no way of keeping a copy of the one’s you especially enjoyed to view again at some time in the future. This was in contrast to some of the first books which I really enjoyed in the early 1960s – such as Coral Island and Greenmantle – and which have resided on my bookshelves to this very day, available for dipping into or re-reading at will (though, truth be told, this hasn’t happened much). All this changed in the 1970s with the emergence of the domestic video recorder, and movies could be rented, and eventually purchased, on video tapes. In the 1980s, you could have a collection of films in your bookcase along with your favourite books.

Unfortunately, there was – and still is – a significant distinction between the two media: books don’t require anything else to be able to read them, whereas video films need equipment to play them on – equipment that keeps changing as the technology develops. So, my collection of films on VHS video had to be swapped into DVDs; and last year we got a new TV streaming box which doesn’t have a DVD player at all.

However, leaving aside this pesky technology problem, I’m wondering if the introduction of films to our bookshelves has truly made a difference. As I hinted above, I don’t reread books very often; and yet having them on my shelves does make a difference. I guess their presence acts as a reminder of the impressions they made on me; and their physical presence does afford me rereading opportunity, whilst their absence might fuel a desire to obtain them. Is the same true of films? Well, I think in my case – yes! The visuality and motion in films undoubtedly make them seem more attractive than a book, and may be more likely to inspire a second viewing; nevertheless, as with my books, I don’t seem to have  taken much advantage of their availability. But I would, in principle, like to have a collection of my favourite films, even if only to know what they are.

Of course, films are not the only video material that we encounter today: we also watch huge amounts of TV, some of which we really enjoy and regard as memorable. Some people recorded and had collections of such material – and then encountered the changing technology problem. In the face of today’s streaming services, only the dedicated will have managed to retain such collections in a form that Is still accessible. My wife and I, thankfully, never went down that particular rabbit hole.

There are two other types of video material that I do have collections of. One is about a dozen pieces relating to office technology developments that were relevant to my job as an IT consultant. These were included in my work filing system, converted to digital files several years ago, and continue to be maintained within the filing system under its digital preservation maintenance plan. I feel no need to have these items displayed anywhere: they are accessible via the filing system’s index in just the same way as all the other 25,000+ items in the collection. The other type is the family’s collection of cine films from the 1950s onwards, and more recent videos taken on video recorders and then on mobile phones. These are included in the family’s photo collection, and maintained under that collection’s digital preservation plan. Interestingly, we do have these items on DVDs in very thin cases and on display in our living room bookcase, so the fact that we no longer have a DVD player attached to our TV does affect the accessibility of these family records as well.

While there are numerous similarities in the motivations and practicalities associated with collecting these three different types of videos – films/TV, work, and family, I nevertheless feel that I’ve collected the work and family videos for very specific reasons, whereas the collection of film/TV videos is much more like collecting books – it is based on very subjective appreciations of the content and, importantly, whether you own the item in the first place: if you really enjoyed a book you borrowed from a library would you be likely to go out and buy a copy just to put it on your bookshelf?

This last point is critical in todays streaming world, and it applies not just to video but also to music and books. The lack of physical media when films/TV, music, and e-books are consumed mean that there is nothing physical to go on our physical bookshelves; and in the case of films/TV and music, there is not even a digital file to store on your local device. This simple fact is probably the most significant factor in our decisions about collecting films/TV and music in today’s streaming environment. It also highlights the point that most physical collections of books and films/tv exist simply because the media was purchased in order to consume it – not because you wanted to build a collection. The collection was just a by-product of the process. I shall carry this thought with me as I set about deciding what to do with my DVDs.

DVD Dilemmas

Last summer we boxed up our DVDs when we had our lounge redecorated, and there they have remained because we no longer have a video recorder to play them on. The box is taking up space in my study so the time has come when I need to something with them.

Of course, I could just take the whole lot down to a local charity shop – but it’s not going to be as easy as that. You see, mixed in among the movies that we just bought and enjoyed (like the Bourne series) are long time favourites that I’ve collected on VHF Video Tapes and then replaced with DVDs (like 2001); and some event DVDS that I’ve promised myself an enjoyable reliving at some unspecified time in the future (like the 2012 Olympics). I do want to keep some of these to enjoy them in the future, so I guess I’m going to have to go through the whole collection to choose which ones to keep a copy of and which ones to get rid of; and then I’ll have to figure out how to convert the ones I’m keeping to a more long-lived format. I’m anticipating that these decisions may also be affected by the sizes of the files that the conversions will produce: I’m not used to handling loads of gigabit-sized files.