On Video Conversion and Film Grain

Like almost every other geek of a certain age, I was blown away by the news of a fan-transferred 1977 version of Star Wars, with all of the slightly-jerky modelwork and matte lines intact, and I went immediately to the dark corners of the internet to find myself a copy.  I would feel guilty about this if I hadn’t bought Star Wars on VHS (twice), Laserdisc (twice again), DVD AND Blu-Ray, but as it is Disney can just deal.

Anyway, it is glorious.  It’s never going to be mistaken for a 2016 blu-ray transferred from the original negatives, but that’s a pipe dream.  It’s a transfer from a multigenerational optical copy with reel change marks and scratches intact, and I firmly believe that it is the best possible way to experience Star Wars as of this moment in time.  It gives me flashbacks to the days of being dropped at the dollar cinema, with stale popcorn, questionably-sticky floors and threadbare seats, while the adults went and did important adult things.

It’s also distributed as an mkv file with an ac3 stereo soundtrack, and this is an issue because I like to have all of my media indexed in iTunes and available on my Apple TV for living room playback, and iTunes doesn’t speak mkv AT ALL and really prefers aac over ac3.

Normally I’d pass a video file like this through handbrake, but I know from experience that handbrake doesn’t like grain very much.  Not to get too technical about it, but the amount of grain present is enough to give it the “screaming heebie-jeebies”, and I’m pretty sure that any video file it gave me would be double the size of the original AND look awful.

Fortunately, the video track was encoded in h264, which iTunes has NO trouble with.

This gave me an excuse to get ffmpeg on my Mac.  I’ve used ffmpeg a ton on the PC for this sort of thing, but my days of needing to do serious amounts of video transcoding are long past and these days handbrake is ALMOST always good enough.

It turned out to be quite exciting, really.  First, I had to get the “brew” package manager, and use that to install ffmpeg, and then fix access permissions on a couple of folders that for some reason were created as owned by root with no access granted to the admin group… you know, the usual sorts of quirks you run in to any time you try to do Unix-y stuff on a shiny Cupertino OSXbox.

On the other hand. once those little foibles were dealt with, getting an iTunes-friendly version was as simple as the following terminal command:

ffmpeg -i starwars.mkv -vcodec copy -acodec libfaac -ab 320k starwars.m4v

This handles the container conversion (mkv to m4v), leaves the video track intact and re-encodes the stereo ac3 audio as aac.

As a side effect, I’m set for the next time a file like this drops into my lap, so big win all around.

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