I hereby stick out my tongue at everyone who's ever accused me of filming too much.
Yes, I was that dad with a camcorder, on every vacation, at every birth, wedding and graduation as my kids grew up. More times than I can count, I've been chastised for “hiding behind that damn machine instead of living the moment” and told that “you'll never even watch those tapes.”
Even Steve Jobs essentially said I was an idiot. (I had reviewed a new version of the MacBook and had criticized it for no longer including the port that allowed you to upload, and thus edit, videotape from a camcorder. Jobs called me at home to inform me that nobody used tape camcorders anymore and that if I truly thought that I would someday edit down all my tapes, I was deluded.)
But for decades, all of those people were pretty much correct. Recording video was easy. Watching it, though, was hard. Nobody wants to see raw, unedited home movies—but editing them is a time-consuming pain. So what happens? The world's VCR and camcorder tapes sit, at this moment, rotting in boxes.
And I mean rotting. Depending on the storage conditions, magnetic recording tapes might start degrading after 10 or 20 years.
Deep down, your conscience knows that you should rescue them before they're gone. But doing that yourself requires technical expertise, playback equipment you may no longer have, and free time that you almost certainly don't have. Sending it all out for conversion is convenient and usually yields better results, but it's pricey—usually $12 to $20 a tape. Worse, and bizarrely, most of today's conversion outfits transfer your old tapes onto DVD-R discs—which themselves begin to “rot” in as little as 10 years—instead of digital files that you can store online or on hard drives.
Not all of them, though, so I finally bit the bullet and shipped my 275 audio and videotapes to a company that converts them to digital. (You've still got plenty of choices: You can bring in your tapes in a box to Costco and Walmart, for example; they send them on to YesVideo for conversion. I sent mine to Southtree, a huge conversion facility in Tennessee. Almost all of them work the same way—playing your tape in regular old VCRs, in real time. It takes two hours to convert a two-hour video.)
When it was all over, I had a hard drive that could have been named “My Life, 1979–2010.” It teemed with neatly labeled folders containing the digital conversions of all those videos. I rapidly fell down a time-suck rabbit hole, double-clicking, fast-forwarding, reliving.
Until you go through it, you can't imagine how powerful an experience this is—the closest you'll ever come to having a time machine. There you are, and your family and friends, in younger days. You see which parts of your character and personality have always been present and which were cultivated as you grew. You may even let yourself off the psychological hook in certain deep-seated ways; maybe you discover you weren't quite the naive doofus you've always imagined you were back then, or you realize some disastrous performance wasn't actually as bad as you remember it.
In digital form, videos are incredibly easy to edit. You can snip out the boring parts in seconds and post to YouTube with a click. I sent notes to old classmates, co-workers and family members, treating them to private YouTube links for resurrected scenes that I knew would delight them.
My children were blown away. They're encountering the concept of home movies for the first time, as teenagers. They're fascinated to see their relatives with dark hair and no wrinkles and themselves as tiny tots.
So I encourage you, right here, in writing, to rescue your family's videotapes (and films, and slides, and prints). You can't imagine the freaky sense of time travel and second youth it will bring you to watch them.