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Saving Compromised MiniDV Footage

Sooner or later, it happens to everyone – you shoot that once-in-a-lifetime footage with your miniDV camcorder, only to find later that the playback is garbled. There are many reasons for bad recordings, including clogged heads and misaligned tape transports, so of course keep a miniDV head cleaning tape in your camera bag and run it at the first sign of trouble.My Sony cameras display a head clog warning on the view screen, and just playing the head cleaner for 10 seconds has always resolved head clogs in the field before they became a real issue. Having a reputable dealer do routine maintenance and cleanings is also a good idea to avoid disaster.I recently loaded several hours of miniDV wedding footage into my edit system via 1394 Firewire, and found a not-so-small problem when I began the edit process. I had 3 cameras running during the ceremony – one in the balcony, one at the rear of the aisle, and my main camera up front that I operate and which showed no signs of trouble during the actual wedding shoot.The first several minutes of the front camera footage was totally unusable. The picture was almost constantly breaking up into blocks (you miniDV users know what I’m talking about!), and also had little gray and pink squares dancing all over the place. This ruined the entrance of the mothers and their lighting of the candles, and the entire processional, including the bride’s entrance and give away. I did of course have the two rear cameras running, but who wants to look at a wide-angle static shot of peoples’ backsides during these critical moments?The first thing you can do when encountering issues like these is to make sure you are playing the tape in the same camera you shot it with, as minor alignment issues between camera transports could cause playback issues. I’ve seen issues with trying to swap tapes between Sony and Canon miniDV camcorders, with tapes playing fine in one but not the other.I tried all three of my matching Sony miniDV cameras, and even my HDV camera, and got the same playback results on all of them. What to do? I remembered a video forum post I’d read online years ago, from a camera manufacturer rep I believe, which stated that digital transfers from miniDV did not have any error correction applied – the raw DV data was passed along “as is,” warts and all, via 1394.The post went on to say that if using the analog video outputs of the camera, error correction was applied during the D/A conversion and this would often minimize or eliminate playback issues. Having nothing to lose, I connected the component output cable to my HDV camera and recaptured the problem footage into Premiere CS3 using the analog inputs of my Matrox RT.X2 hardware. I was very relieved to find the footage miraculously restored, with only a few minor hints of any issues apparent.Of course, not everyone has analog inputs on their NLE system and may be limited to 1394 capture only. In this case, if you have two miniDV cameras and they have the capability to record video using their analog inputs, as do my Sony VX-2000 units, you could simply connect the two cameras and dub from one to the other using analog connections. Another option would be to use a converter box like those offered by Canopus/Grass Valley to convert analog video to 1394, passing the analog out of the camera through the box to capture DV into the computer.Once you’ve copied the problem footage to a new miniDV tape, and hopefully removed or at least minimized the issues, you can then capture that new tape via 1394 for editing. Understand that some glitches simply can’t be fixed, but this method is definitely worth trying at least.I’ve also heard that in the event you can’t recover the footage yourself, try to find a post house that has a high-end Sony DVCAM deck such as a DSR-45, DSR-60, or DSR-1600, as these have better chances of playing back problem tapes. They may be able to create a better dub for you to work with. There are also companies that specialize in recovering damaged tapes, which in some cases could be well worth the costs involved.I do occasionally get little dropouts on my miniDV recordings, but these typically last just one or two frames. My recent problem was the worst I’ve encountered in 12 years of shooting with miniDV. Some would say that shooting with the new tapeless camcorders eliminates these problems, but data can be lost as well, either on the camera memory card, or from the hard drive you dump it to, so nothing is ever certain.I’m just glad I was able to resolve my issue without a lot of hassle, and I’m very glad I didn’t have to explain to the wedding couple why there was no footage of the bride coming up the aisle! I hope this information can help someone else in their time of need. Keep those cameras clean, and happy shooting!

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Saving Compromised MiniDV Footage