Tuesday, June 25, 2013

A Guide to Creating your Home Cinema: Digitising your Media Library

DVDs can easily get out of hand
Source: JustLiveSimple.com
DVDs and Blu-Rays are simply brilliant creations. Where we once had to watch films on tapes that we had always forgotten to rewind before putting it into the machine, we can now watch high definition films at the click of a button. So, what's the problem with the humble DVD?

Take a DVD box. A simple, but functional creation. It holds a disk (or even many disks) and it sits nicely on a shelf next to your complete copy of every edition of Encyclopaedia Brittanica. Heck, that DVD case could even contain a digitised version of your Encyclopaedia Brittanica. As I say, simple, functional and space-saving.

Or is it? Imagine now, that "space-saving" device has 99 other friends for those 100 films you happen to own. At 13.5cm x 19cm x 1.5cm (5.3" x 7.5" x 0.6") per box, in order to see the spines of all of those, you'll need 1.5m (5ft) of shelf space. Scaled up to 500 films and you'll need a ceiling-high cupboard approximately 0.6m (2ft) wide stacked from top to bottom. Yes, it becomes unmanageable.

One viable alternative is to grab all of those films and copy them onto a computer so that you can hide the cases in the loft or cellar. This also brings the added advantage of being able to search for a film by genre, year or even by the name of an obscure extra or film-hand.

Legal Mumbo Jumbo
Before I move onto the process of digitising your media library, please read up on the relevant laws in your region. From what I can gather, in the UK it is now legal to rip all media providing you are not circumventing digital protection. Now, most DVDs and almost certainly all Blu-rays have an element of digital protection built in, so technically ripping them would still be illegal. Sorry, I don't make the law.

My view is that if you spend £15 on a film, then you should be able to use it how you like so long as you are not distributing the material. If you were to sell a film, you should remove it from your digital library as you would have sold the rights to the licence on the film at the same time. Equally, if a friend lends you a film for a weekend it shouldn't grant you the right to copy the film before returning it.

Personally, I do not believe in downloading illegitimate films from the internet, as artists should always be paid for their work and, as those helpful adverts carefully explain, piracy is stealing. Equally, if you buy a rare film, make 500 copies of it and then start to sell them, the original value of the film is all but lost. I am proud to say that I have legally purchased - or been given as a gift - every single film in my collection.

On the flip side, distributors don't make this any easier. Sure, the offer of a digital download available with some DVDs and Blu-rays is starting to open up this market and make converting your collection a whole lot easier. On the other hand, you may end up having to sign up to a service that leaves you locked into their media players and when you want to watch that film on an unsupported device you might not be able to. It is up to you, I just prefer a world of choice that gives me the freedom to choose my own hardware, whether it be PC, tablet or 50" flat-screen LCD all-singing all-dancing television.

Capacity Requirements
To copy your collection to the computer, you'll need to decide if you want to copy the whole lot to satisfy your kleptomania, just your TV shows or maybe just films containing your favourite Disney princesses. Once you know around about how many films you want to copy, then you can begin to calculate how much capacity your computer will need to have.

From experience, there is no sure-fire way of saying that 200 films will equal a certain number of gigabytes. You also need to account for the picture quality, whether you want subtitles and whether all of your films are over 6 hours long.

As a general rule of thumb, I would trade some element of picture quality for capacity. If you wanted to do direct copies of your DVDs (4.7 GB at the least), then your 500 film collection would take up 2.35TB at the very least and for Blu-Rays it would be at least ten times that (more than 25,000 GB). Again, it becomes unrealistic to do this. Besides, do this and you'll still have to navigate those pesky menus.

As a result, I would highly recommend converting your films to another, popular format such as .AVI or .MP4, both of which are highly supported video formats. If you have foreign language films you can 'burn' the subtitles to the film, or some formats let you have them as a switch-on/switch-off style too.

Assuming you convert all of your films to .MP4, I would say that you would need around 2GB per DVD and 10GB per Blu-ray. Again though, be prepared for fluctuations and if you want higher quality or a different file format then you may have to do your own research.

Setting Up Your Server

Synology: Best NAS on the market?
Network Attached Storage (NAS) Drive
After calculating your space requirements, you will need somewhere to store your media. Now, many people have old computers lying around which will do a fair job of holding an lot of films, and indeed I had a spare computer with 1 terabytes (1000 gigabytes) of space on it. Problem is, these are probably not set up for sharing those media files.

Yes, you can download software that will enable this, but I decided to buy a Synology NAS (network attached storage) drive and fill it up with 12TB worth of hard disks (4 x 3TB disks) - more than enough for my growing media library. The beauty of the NAS is that it happily shares its data with the other devices on the network for easy accessibility. I can share to the Xbox 360 for television viewing, to my tablet for bedtime viewing or to my computer if I'm feeling like a break from working. You don't even need much technical knowledge to set it up.

During the set up procedure, I was asked about how I wanted the disks to work together (this is probably the most complicated bit - and only complicated if you buy more than one hard disk). Synology has its own system of connecting the disks together, but I opted for RAID5. Without getting too technical, if one of my hard disks fails, it can be replaced and I won't lose any data. You do have to sacrifice 25% of your capacity for this security though, and you should also bear in mind that hard disks lose further capacity during their setup. As a result, my 12TB was diminished into 8TB. Fortunately this had been accounted for in my calculations.

Video Station: Synology's answer to Plex (server screenshot)
For those who want an even cheaper NAS solution, just opt for a single disk (try for the highest capacity possible - around 4TB). You won't be able to have the security against data, but you should still have the DVDs in your loft anyway so you'll be fine.

If you do opt for a Synology NAS (for reference, mine is the DS413j), then once it is all set up I would highly recommend downloading a package called Media Server which sets up folders for you to put you films, music and photos into. Once this is done, you are ready to start converting! As an aside, I would also download DS Video or Plex as these are two great packages for sharing films across your network.

If you opt for your own computer, then please look into server software such as the brilliant Plex.

Setting Up Your Computer

Ubuntu: Free alternative to Windows or Mac
To convert, you will need a computer with Windows, Mac or Linux (yes, even Linux - that's what I use because it's free!). It will need at least 10GB free of hard disk space for ripping DVDs and 50GB free for ripping Blu-rays. The computer will need a DVD drive for doing DVDs or a Blu-ray drive for doing both types of media.

If you fancy doing this on the cheap, you could convert any old computer you have lying around your house into a Linux machine. Linux is an operating system similar to Windows and Mac, but tends to require less power to work. Thus, if you have an old computer with a DVD drive and at least 10GB of free hard disk space then you could use this for converting your disks. Check out Ubuntu, if you fancy this route.

The next bit came courtesy of lifehacker.com. You will need to install two programs: MakeMKV and Handbrake (both free although the former is time limited). For Windows and Mac users these should be relatively easy to install from the linked websites. For Linux users, a user called mechevar on the MakeMKV forums has made a handy script for installing MakeMKV and you will need to update repositories to install Handbrake.

For the purposes of clarity, I will be explaining everything from a Linux user's point of view, but most of the elements described below can be transferred to Windows and Mac too as the software is the same.
Right, once you have all that, you're good to go!

Digitising your Media Library

MakeMKV: To rip DVDs
MakeMKV - Ripping your films
Insert the disk you want to digitise into your computer drive and start MakeMKV. Your computer will undoubtedly tell you that you've inserted a disk and give you hundreds of options for it. Ignore all of these. Once MakeMKV is open, click the disk or go to File > Open Disk > [Your Disk]. This will start hunting around the disk for any piece of film it can find. Depending on the encoding of the disk, this could take a matter of seconds or half an hour. Either way, once this is done you'll be presented with a checklist of all the bits of film on your disk.

Just to warn you: some disks will have over 30 titles because it'll pick up all of the trailers and copyright warnings that precede the menu. It could also find all of the bloopers too. Generally, you'll want to choose the title with the largest size next to it as this will almost certainly be your film. Uncheck all the rest of the boxes, and choose your destination directory on the top right. I would highly recommend making a new folder called "[Film Name] ([Year])" [e.g. Avatar (2009)] and saving it into there. Once this is done press Make MKV at the top and go and make yourself a cup of your favourite beverage!

A short while later you'll be told it's done and in your destination directory there will be a file called something.mkv (usually title00.mkv, but it might be different). You can watch this file (if you have a compatible video player) as it is a movie container and you could just copy it straight onto your NAS right away. That said, at around 5-10gB for DVDs and 30-50gB for Blu-rays this soon starts to add up on your storage. Also, MKV is a format that is only just starting to gain popularity and may not be fully supported on your player.

Handbrake: To Convert Films
Handbrake - Converting your films
I chose to compress my files down, to save space and enable the Xbox 360 to play the films (this was a pain in the backside). This is where Handbrake comes in. Open it up and you'll be presented with a bit more of a complicated interface than that of MakeMKV. Press Source and find your .mkv film. Next, choose the destination of your film and the new name of it (recommended calling it "[Film Name] ([Year])" [e.g. Avatar (2009)] ).

You can choose the type of file you want to output. This is entirely up to you, and I won't preach on which is best. I chose MP4 simply because it is a common type. Intially, choosing MP4 will change the extension of your file to M4V for compatibility with Apple products, but going to File > Preferences can change this to .mp4 should you so require.

The tabs below are all about your film. Usually, its best to just leave well alone unless you want to change your audio output or video stream. The subtitles can be very useful for foreign language films. I tend to burn the subtitles onto the films for ease of access, but it means you can't turn them off should you enjoy watching foreign language films in their native language with no help. I also changed my .mp4 audio to .mp3 instead of .aac, and my player said the file was invalid so now I just leave things as they are.

Later versions (it's only just been released so this is hot off the press) also allow you to add tags to your films in a similar way to how you can tag music films with artists and song titles. Simply click the Tags tab.

Once you are ready to go, press Start at the top. If you already have one conversion going, just hit Enqueue. This makes for very easy multitasking and means you don't have to be watching your computer every hour. I have films copying using MakeMKV while Handbrake has films queued up and leave my computer on overnight for maximum efficiency.

Copying Your Films to the NAS

Film to NAS
Throwing the files onto the NAS is really easy. You need to ensure your NAS and computer are connected to the same network and go into your computer's network folder, click on your NAS and simply copy the new files into the relevant folder.

As I briefly mentioned with the file naming earlier, it is important to get a naming regime down as soon as possible otherwise you could find your collection being unmanageable. I tend to stick to the following:

  • Movies
    • [Film Name] ([Year])
      • [Film Name] ([Year]).mp4
      • poster.jpg
  • TV Shows
    • [TV Show Name]
      • Season [Season Number]
        • [TV Show Name] - s[Season Number]e[Episode Number] - [Episode Name].mp4
e.g. If I had the first episode of Lost, and the movie Avatar:
  • Movies
    • Avatar (2009)
      • Avatar (2009).mp4
      • poster.jpg
  • TV Shows
    • Lost
      • Season 1
        • Lost - s01e01 - Pilot.mp4
As you can see, pretty concise and to the point. Both DS Video and Plex will be able to search the Movies and TV Shows directories and find further information about your film - you just need to give it a nudge in the right direction!


This could easily have been a job that was absolutely FREE for me to carry out had I wanted to use the old computer to store the DVDs on. In the end, I decided to splash out on the NAS, which set me back quite a lot of money - but the investment was to future proof my system as it is by far the most important part of this entire procedure. Fortunately we use Synology NAS systems at work, so I was able to get around it pretty quickly.

I now have a system of being able to digitise my entire DVD & Blu-ray library and the ability to store over 2,000 films. I can pick and choose films using my tablet, Xbox controller or even my mobile phone and quite easily watch them on my ageing 22" television (though, as it's connected through HDMI, this could plausibly be a 70" 3D projector - that's a lesson for another day).

Please comment if you have any queries with the ridiculous amount of text above!

Friday, June 21, 2013

A Guide to Creating your Home Cinema: Introduction & Disclaimer

One of the first things I wanted to do when I bought my new house was to drag its 1950's masonry into the 21st Century. My idea was clear: I wanted to pick and watch a 3D movie on a projector with 5.1 surround sound (7.1 is no good in my tiny living room) without leaving the comfortable haven of my sofa.

Source: AboutProjectors
There was a catch though: this is a budget job. I absolutely refuse to have the expense of external companies' help on a job that I feel any person with a bit of technological nous and a hammer can achieve.

So, over the coming months I shall keep you updated with my progress and hopefully you can gain some insight into how to create yourself a lovely home cinema by learning from my mistakes (and probably improving on them by spending an extra £20 that I decided to save!).

Part of what I will be discussing is how to transfer all of your DVDs & Blu-Rays onto a computer so that they can be accessed without ever leaving your chair. Naturally, with ripping DVDs comes certain legal grey areas.

The law in the UK was updated in 2010 with the Digital Economy Act which legalised copying CDs and DVDs for personal use. However, it is not that simple. It is still not legal to bypass copyright protection which is prevalent on most DVDs and nearly all Blu-Rays. That means, by law in the UK, it is still not necessarily legal to copy the films which you bought.

So, for the purposes of any information I give on ripping DVDs and Blu-Rays I strongly urge you to investigate the laws in your country.

Other than that, I hope the information I give you will come in useful!

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Breakfast At Tiffany's (1961)

Theatrical Poster
Source: Wikipedia
In all honesty, I haven't watched a film for probably getting on a month due to the countless amounts of classic TV series that the girlfriend and I have been sifting through (Lost, My Family, Peep Show, Hustle). But, during a recent spree on eBay, I managed to pick up The Audrey Hepburn 3 Film Collection (including Sabrina and Funny Face) for a bargain. As a result, I could finally achieve something I've been trying to do for a while and watch Breakfast at Tiffany's.

Breakfast At Tiffany's, the movie, is not to be confused with Breakfast At Tiffany's, the Truman Capote novella, on which Breakfast At Tiffany's, the movie, is based. It is also not to be be confused with Breakfast At Tiffany's, the song by Deep Blue Something, which is about using Breakfast At Tiffany's, the movie, to reconcile with a girlfriend. Capice?

Despite being an American literary classic, my first experience of Breakfast At Tiffany's actually came from the song although, because of my age, it was a 2003 cover version by Jannik (which is pretty good - the girlfriend and I both kinda liked it) that first crossed my path. Naturally, I would ignorantly sing the lyrics and wonder what was so special about Tiffany that would make some guy want to have morning crumpets with her.

Fortunately, in the ten years since the re-release of that song, I've become slightly more educated. After watching Capote and In Cold Blood, along with reading the book around which those films are based, my admiration for Truman Capote was piqued and his classic 1958 romantic comedy was the natural progressive step.

Breakfast At Tiffany's is about Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn), a socialite who Capote once described as an "American geisha". She spends her days courting rich men in exchange for money which she tries, in vain, to save for the return of her brother, Fred, who is serving in the military.

Paul Varjak (George Peppard), a writer (from whose view the novella is written), moves into the apartment above Holly's and, because of his similar life situation, Holly befriends him. Initially, Paul is uninterested in Holly because of her extravagant lifestyle, but gradually he finds himself drawn into her naïve little world.

The first thing that can really be said about Breakfast At Tiffany's is that it was written (and subsequently released) at the right time. Following the screwball comedies of the 1930's and 1940's (Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday), the romantic comedy genre had petered out by the end of the 1950's. Breakfast At Tiffany's seemed like the natural evolution of the genre that would later give us some of the worst films ever made.

Rather than providing the audience with a character that is easy to imagine being your next door neighbour as had been the norm before, the swinging 60's and Breakfast At Tiffany's brought in the concept that this was probably happening to someone else you'll never meet. It also embraced sexuality where its predecessors shied away from the taboo.

Breakfast At Tiffany's showcases a romance you feel will only ever happen at the start of a relationship when it feels like something new and exciting. It's dashed with the idyllic sentiments of a first date and its backing track of Moon River is a stroke of genius especially as Holly serenades Cat as Paul looks on wistfully to the mellow tones.

For all of Audrey Hepburn's glamour - and in Breakfast At Tiffany's she is simply sublime - Holly Golightly is not someone you'd expect to bump into on the streets of New York. She's a member of a society that doesn't take part in 9 to 5 office work. She's what every woman should aspire to with their newly found freedom, while less obviously the majority of men are depicted as snivelling and desperate.

Really, it's this new, exciting and romantic group of oddballs that makes Breakfast At Tiffany's the American literary - and movie - classic that still retains its charm today.