Teach Hacks: Creating Clips from DVDs

August 8, 2013
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mpegstreamclipThis is the second post in Antenna’s “Teach Hacks.” I’m covering a crucial skillset for film and media scholars: extracting clips from DVDs. I’m including numerous links, since there are already some clip-making tutorials and explanations of relevant fair use doctrine available online. But I’ll also address a few thorny issues, including nuances of extracting subtitles and clip-making in the “post-physical-media” era, that aren’t well covered elsewhere.

Fair Use
In 1998, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) made it illegal to break copyright protection technology on DVDs – even if one employed the liberated media in a manner satisfying fair use doctrine (i.e., using short excerpts for criticism/comment). However, in 2006, 2009, and 2012 the Library of Congress’s Copyright Office announced exemptions to the DMCA for educators and students. Jason Mittell covers the 2006 and 2009 rulings here. Here you can read the 2012 report, which extended the exemption to K-12 educators and students and to certain types of online video (more on that later).

Fair use advocates have thus far failed to persuade the Copyright Office to extend the exemptions to Blu-ray discs, which are protected by a different type of encryption than DVDs. According to the 2012 report, “the record did not reflect a substantial adverse impact due to the inability to use motion picture materials contained on Blu-ray discs” – even if said materials were only available on Blu-ray. So, for now, the exemptions apply only to DVDs “that are lawfully made and acquired.”

mtrMaking Clips
To go from a commercial DVD to a short clip ready for instructional use, a couple of things need to happen. (Some applications perform these tasks simultaneously,but that does not automatically make them the best option in all instances.)

1. You need to “rip” the relevant chapter(s) of the DVD to your computer or an external drive – in so doing breaking CSS encryption.

2. You need to pinpoint a precise “in” and “out” point for your clip and generate a corresponding video file from the ripped DVD chapter.

One option is the program Handbrake. Two Handbrake-based tutorials are Miriam Posner’s and Jason Mittell’s.

My process more closely resembles that outlined by Bill Kirkpatrick, who recommends, for Mac users, a combination of two programs: Mac the Ripper and MPEG Streamclip. DVDFab is a comparable ripping application for PCs; MPEG Streamclip is available for Mac and PC.

Pro tips:
-The ability to rip off-region DVDs varies unpredictably from disc to disc. In some cases I’ve been able to rip a chapter right from my laptop’s DVD drive, and other times I’ve only been able to do so using an external drive. Sometimes neither works.

-MPEG Streamclip can’t extract clips’ accompanying subtitles. Handbrake can retain subtitles. If you’ve got custom-subbed media, the subtitles are probably stored as .SRT files. A very helpful clip-making application for the latter scenario is FFMPEGX.

-If your source material is interlaced you may wish to de-interlace it when making a clip.

-If you are going to be displaying your clips on a TV (especially an older set), you may wish to toggle the “zoom” function to 90-95% to protect against overscanning.

If you make clips, especially ones needing subtitles, regularly, and are picky about quality, you should seriously consider paying for an application like Wondershare Video Converter or MacX DVD Ripper Pro. They offer one-stop ripping/clipping/converting and are faster and more flexible than the free options discussed above.

Transferring/presenting Clips
Now, how to get your clips into the classroom? Here are your chief options, from best to worst:

1. Screen them directly from your computer if you have a video dongle/audio input setup available.
2. If you can’t use your own computer but have access to a classroom AV console with a computer, play them from a USB drive. If you teach film or media and don’t already own a 32GB or larger USB drive, you should get one.
3. If you have only a TV/DVD system to work with, burn your clips to a video DVDR that is playable in a standard DVD player.

The third option is worst, because a clips DVD is: a time-consuming pain to create; harder to navigate for close analysis and discussion; and otherwise more restrictive and onerous. Many older standalone DVD players (such as those still in use in college classrooms) do not play burned DVDRs with any consistency.

It’s also getting increasingly difficult, at least for Mac users, to make clips discs, because new Macs no longer ship with iDVD. A freeware alternative to iDVD is a program called Burn, but in my experience it has trouble combining clips with different aspect ratios. (For PCs, Posner suggests BurnAware or ImgBurn.)

dvdcollThe Future of Clip-making and DVDs

I’m wary of the much-touted decline of physical media and concurrent rise of cloud storage and access, as these phenomena stand to restrict our ability to manipulate media for teaching or analysis. Streaming and cloud-based media are more difficult to capture and make clips from. When you can make clips from streaming media, the quality is often significantly worse than clips made from a DVD of the same work. Streaming media can be yanked from the consumer any time (remember “Streamageddon“?). The films and shows for which you can obtain “official” digital copies in proprietary online “vaults” represent a mere fraction of all the media you might wish to draw on for your teaching. Apple is among the most aggressive proponents of the cloud, and its computers no longer ship with optical disc drives. But it remains crucial for film and media instructors to own a functioning DVD drive – and to encourage their universities to continue building DVD libraries.

But what about media only available via streaming services – for instance, the rare television programs hosted at the Paley Center’s “iMedia” online archive? Well, the Copyright Office grants fair-use excerpting privileges not just for “motion pictures on DVDs” but also for those “distributed by online services.” This clause seems to open the door for some legal circumventing of proprietary streaming software like Silverlight. But that’s a subject for another Teach Hacks …


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One Response to “ Teach Hacks: Creating Clips from DVDs ”

  1. Sarah Adams on August 8, 2013 at 6:22 PM

    Very interesting article. I can see and have seen to some extent, fans of different shows already perfecting this skill.

    It will be very interesting to see the direction this goes in.