Creating Your Personal Digital Movie Library

iTunes Movies Library

There are several reasons to store your movies in an only-online format. One of them is that this method is eventually going to be the default way you store and access movies. VHS tapes died a long time back, CDs followed and I’m sure DVDs are next. The success of Netflix’s ‘Instant Play’ streaming service is an indication of the direction of movie delivery. Heck, even though Blu-Ray killed HD-DVD recently, it may not last for long either.

We recently bought the latest version of Apple TV after deciding to go the all-digital route for our movie library. I will review the Apple TV later and will focus only on how to make your movie library AppleTV-ready.[1]. I will briefly described the tools you’ll need and the workflow in order to set up your library.

You’ll need the following:

Hardware

  • Mac/PC with iTunes installed.
  • Your DVD library[2]
  • A bigass external USB-connected HDD (or a NAS server like Drobo)[3] hooked to your router[4] that lets you access files off your network.
  • AppleTV or other kind of device that streams content off your computer[5]
  • Home Theater System hooked to your TV (optional).

Software

Ripping your DVDs

Although there are hajjar ripping softwares out there, RipIt is by far the easiest and no-nonsense app that does the bare minimum. Just pop in your DVD in the optical drive (sorry, MacBook Air people) and click the Rip button in the app (ignore the Compress button). The ripping part takes about 10-15 minutes and will create a folder with the movie name with sub-folder VIDEO_TS that contain all the VOB files (you don’t need to know what they are; I don’t).

Converting to AppleTV-friendly format

You need to convert this ripped DVD to a .MP4 or a .M4V format file since iTunes will only accept those. Launch HandBrake and click on Source. Locate the folder you just ripped and click on Open. HandBrake will automatically detect the largest file in the folder and assume it is the main movie (excludes menu and other crap that usually accompanies the DVDs). You may fiddle around with the settings under Video, Audio, or Advanced but I don’t. I just change the Average Bitrate (kbps) under the Video tab to 2500. Click Start to begin the conversion process. This takes about 1-1.5 hours.

The best part of HandBrake is that you can add movies to the queue so that it will begin converting the next one with the same settings as soon as it is done with the current one. I usually rip 5-10 movies, add it to the HandBrake queue, and let it run overnight or when I’m at work. You can always pause and resume the process if it is taking up too many CPU resources. HandBrake also converts .AVI or .DIVX files that you have managed to download from elsewhere.

Adding Subtitles (optional)

I don’t add subtitles but if you prefer them, you can do that from within the Subtitles tab in HandBrake. Download the appropriate .SRT file from Open Subtitles and add it to your file. You may choose to burn them in if you want them always on.

Adding Metatags

This is one of my pet peeves with movies that you rip; they lose all the metatags that make organizing them in a library so much fun. By metatags, I mean the release year, description, actors, genre, etc. You can always add these manually once you import them to iTunes but it would take forever if you have a lot of movies. Enter Subler. After converting your movie, you fire up Subler until you see its icon in the dock. Now drag your .MP4 or M4V file to the Subler icon. It will then open a window for the movie with the metatags fields blank. Click on File > Import > TagChimp.

TagChimp is a crowdsourced online database of movie metatags. Enter the name of the movie in the search box and select the appropriate one. Scroll through to find the one which has the most information if there are multiple versions. Click OK and all the metatags will be imported to your file. You can double-click any field and edit it. I usually prefer only the year in the release date field and like to delete any text from the comments field. Sometimes, the cover art is empty and it is no fun if that’s missing because that’s how the movie will be displayed in your library. I usually go to the movie’s IMDB’s page and save the image that accompanies its listing or Google Image search the movie name. Simply drag the saved image file to the blank cover art space and it gets added to your file. Don’t forget to hit File > Save before you close the Subler window. Now your movie is ready to be imported to iTunes.

Importing to iTunes

This is the easiest part – just drag and drop. But before you do, move the converted movie to your desired location where it will reside. I usually save it to the external HDD that is connected to the wireless network. As you may or may not know, when you add any media file to iTunes, it is copied to a location where the main library resides. So if your iTunes Library file is located on your computer (/Users/Your_Name/Music/iTunes) then all files will be duplicated to your hard drive eating up precious space. If you don’t want that to happen, simply uncheck the box next to “Copy files to iTunes Media folder when adding to library” in Preferences > Advanced. This will simply create a link to your movie file instead of copying it. This allows you to store your humungous library on the external HDD and saving space on your computer [6]. Of course, this also means you cannot watch movies if you are not connected to your external HDD. You can always copy a movie or two to your computer temporarily if you are traveling.

So once you have made changes to the settings, open the Movies tab in iTunes. Open the Finder window and browse over to the location of the movie. Simply drag and drop the movie file in iTunes. It takes a few seconds and you’ll see it pop up in your library. You should see the cover art of your movie if you are viewing in thumbnail view.

That’s it. Rinse and repeat for all your DVDs. Depending on the size of your collection, this may seem tedious but once you establish a workflow and let it run overnight or in the background; you won’t even notice it. Soon you will have your entire collection ready to search and view at a click of a button. No more thumbing through DVD cases or stacking up those DVDs waiting to be scratched [7].

Footnotes:
  1. If you hate Apple, other solutions like Boxee, WD Digital Live, and *shudder* Google TV essentially do the same job albeit in a roundabout manner []
  2. Changes in the copyright law now make ripping DVDs you own legal even though the DVDs themselves might have copyright-protection measures built in. If you are planning on ripping your friends DVDs or those from Blockbuster/Neflix, I didn’t hear you. []
  3. More space the better. You get 1.5 TB for less than $100 []
  4. Staying loyal to my fanboy roots, I have Apple’s AirPort Extreme; easy to set up and easy to use []
  5. Alternatively, you can always hook your laptop to the TV when you want to watch a movie but that gets cumbersome in no time []
  6. Alternatively, If you must keep the box next to “Copy files to iTunes Media folder when adding to library” checked, then simply hold down Option while dragging your movie to the iTunes Movies tab. It will not copy the file but simply create a link []
  7. Obviously, backing up your movie collection; preferably on another HDD or in the cloud cannot be emphasized enough []
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  • http://pikeyspeak.blogspot.com Piker

    Nice workflow. Well explained. I don’t have a humongous digital movie collection since I’m not in the habit of collecting movies these days, but whatever I have, I’ve let Windows Media Center 7 handle it. It has a neat auto-download of meta-tags feature already thanks to plug-ins. I have been lazy about ordering a media center remote as of now.

  • http://www.ipatrix.com Patrix

    @Piker: I haven’t seen the Windows 7 Media Center but I assume it would be good. All this natak was to upgrade my movie collection, which you have seen and to sync it to AppleTV.

  • http://www.suyogdeshpande.net Suyog Deshpande

    Well explained. Sounds like too much work for a lazy ass like me. This is a good problem for Jobs to solve. I need a one click solution that does all of the above!

    S

  • http://www.ipatrix.com Patrix

    @Suyog Deshpande: There is a one-click solution – buy movies from the iTunes Store :)

  • Josh

    I’m not sure about W7MC but WMC on XP doesn’t play .mp4s. So what I use is:

    Handbrake to encode as mp4s (its free and awesome)

    TVersity as a media server to my Xbox 360 (its free and awesome)

    http://tversity.com/

    Some PS3 users like the PS3 Media Server, I used it for a while, it worked well, I just prefer my 360 and TVersity.

    http://code.google.com/p/ps3mediaserver/