Find me the least-scammy way to convert my video files
November 23, 2021 8:11 PM   Subscribe

I have a pile of video ripped off old tapes about 15 years ago, and my wonderfully-generous friend who captured them did so into m2v/ac3 files. Fast-forward to now, I can't open them in anything on my Mac, and the only software options out there all seem like vaguely-scammy shareware options, none of which I trust. Help?

I'm 100% willing to buy an app to do this, but I need some advice on what will accomplish it. I have used a wide variety of video converters, etc. over the years, but have been away from it too long to know what the go-to is these days. Any suggestions or solutions would be great.
posted by liquado to Technology (23 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Have you tried VLC? I have yet to find a format VLC didn’t play.
posted by sacrifix at 8:15 PM on November 23 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Not to thread-sit, but negative -- VLC won't play them, either the video or audio tracks. Tried using its convert/stream option, but no dice.
posted by liquado at 8:20 PM on November 23

I might try Handbrake. It's a reputable piece of free software, it uses ffmpeg underneath and ffmpeg supports a great deal. You can definitely mux the m2v (video) and ac3 (audio) with ffmpeg. I've never tried this specific operation with Handbrake so you might wait to see if anyone can confirm it.
posted by BungaDunga at 8:23 PM on November 23 [10 favorites]

Any Video Converter says it handles m2v.
posted by sardonyx at 8:29 PM on November 23

ffmpeg always, always works for this kind of thing.
posted by jmfitch at 8:57 PM on November 23 [4 favorites]

Seconding ffmpeg.

The legendary MPEG Streamclip is also perfect for this kind of thing. Sadly it was never updated to a 64-bit version and thus no longer runs on MacOS as of 10.15 Catalina.

If you want to run 10.14 Mojave or another older OS (like in a separate volume or in a virtual machine) you can still download and use MPEG Streamclip. Note: I think this would only work on an Intel-based Mac -- I'm pretty sure you can't run anything older than Big Sur on an M1 Mac.
posted by theory at 9:02 PM on November 23

Sorry, I forgot that running MPEG Streamclip on an old OS would probably also require you to find and install the old QT Mpeg-2 Playback Component. This can be done, but why bother? This codec was removed from MacOS many years ago, which is why VLC can't play your old files.

Best bet is ffmpeg or Handbrake, both of which are entirely non-scammy.
posted by theory at 9:19 PM on November 23 [1 favorite]

I would personally use Handbrake or ffmpeg, but iMovie might be able to do it if you're familiar with that. A quick Google search suggests that at least in the past it could work with mv2 files (they're just mpeg2) but that it might have been removed at some point.
posted by Candleman at 9:21 PM on November 23

Response by poster: So, to summarize my past experiences:

-Handbrake/iMovie/MPEG Streamclip – none recognizes the files. I tried all of these on previous versions of the OS on an Intel Mac – no good. Still have access to both an Intel and M1 Mac, but have not found a solution to work on either.
-AnyVideoConverter - PC software, Mac download version 404s. Not helpful.
-ffmpeg – I totally believe that it always, always works for this kind of thing, in some universe other than mine. I have not been able to find a set of instructions that make it work. Even when using the link from @BungaDunga above, I get the following on the m2v files:
Invalid data found when processing input

...which has been my experience of ffmpeg in the past, sadly.

Again, appreciate the feedback so far, but I'd like recommendations on a piece of software that just fixes this easily. [Me with $$ in hand]
posted by liquado at 10:42 PM on November 23

I'm not sure if mplayer runs on MacOS, but if so give it a shot and see if it will play the m2v and ac3 files. If it does, you then know they are (approximately) properly formatted and that the issue is either with the specific build of ffmpeg you are using (it can be built without MPEG-2 and Dolby Digital/ac3 support) or the particular options you are using.

If they are valid files, mkvtoolnix should be able to mux them into an mkv file for you. If not, the m2v is probably actually a raw MPEG transport stream and not a program stream, which will confuse tools sometimes. I recommend trying mplayer because it will read all kinds of screwed up stuff. If it doesn't, you might see if tsinfo from the tstools package can at least see what the headers claim are in the files.

It also might help if you can share any more information on how your friend captured the tapes. What they are likely to actually be is different depending on whether they used a DVHS deck and FireWire or recorded them and copied them off a hacked TiVo or used a video capture card from Hauppage or someone else.
posted by wierdo at 1:54 AM on November 24 [1 favorite]

Do you still have the tapes, or do you have to work with these files?
posted by wenestvedt at 3:56 AM on November 24

Sorry, I don't know why you're getting a 404 error for AVC. The Mac download link seems to work for me.
posted by sardonyx at 5:56 AM on November 24

Best answer: Where have these files been stored for 15 years? Is it possible that they have become corrupt and are no longer recognized as video files by the software?
posted by tman99 at 6:28 AM on November 24 [1 favorite]

I've used AnyVideo Converter HD on a 2011 iMac, but not recently. Took some fussing with creating custom settings, and the interface is a little...weird (you pick the device you want the file to play on, i.e., xBox, mobile, iPad, etc. Or you create a custom converter, not hard but took some trial and error).

I did buy it through the Apple app store on my mac, not their site, so I'd try that. I bought it primarily for audio file conversion, but did convert some movies in weird formats back when I was torrenting; it never wouldn't work, but don't remember file types specifically.
posted by Bron at 6:32 AM on November 24

Hmmm that ffmpeg error makes me think the files themselves may be corrupted - when were you last able to actually *play* these? Were they stored on optical media? Have you tested multiple different files?
posted by aspersioncast at 6:46 AM on November 24 [1 favorite]

ffmpeg and Handbrake are the canonical answers to this question, I'm sorry they don't work for you. It'd be very helpful if you could run ffprobe on one of the files and post the output here; it'll show us what files you have. If that can't find any info you've got a hard problem. file might tell you something about the files, at least if it recognizes it as a video format.

(Alternately, if you can share a whole file someone might be able to figure it out.)
posted by Nelson at 7:00 AM on November 24 [2 favorites]

Are you sure there's no issues with the files themselves? You can check if it's a recognized filetype using Terminal and typing:

file filename.m2v

If it returns something like:
this_is_a_file.m2v: MPEG sequence, v2, MP@H-14 progressive Y'CbCr 4:2:0 video, 23.976 fps
Then something is going to be able to open it.

If it returns something like "data", you may be out of luck, or need to repair the file somehow.
posted by Cat Pie Hurts at 7:27 AM on November 24 [1 favorite]

Maybe try online services like

For a corrupted file there is a possibility of a header issue, the fires couple bytes, which the "file" uses to identify the type of file. If that's the case a robust program, possibility a video editor will allow a "scrub" forward into the file and sync with a point later. A full file corruption,well hope not.

Opening in a binary editor to check is challenging and needs digging into the bit level protocols, but is possible.
posted by sammyo at 5:00 PM on November 24

Try Stellar Video Repair , has a free trial but $50-100 to use.
posted by sammyo at 5:05 PM on November 24

Do you have a PC friend who can verify those files are still OK?

Maybe s/he can run Handbrake on PC for you and generate MP4s or such.
posted by kschang at 12:36 AM on November 25 [1 favorite]

Have you tried adding the ignore error option to ffmpeg?

ffmpeg -err_detect ignore_err
posted by Monochrome at 12:06 PM on November 25 [1 favorite]

Or the discard corrupt flag

-fflags discardcorrupt
posted by Monochrome at 12:20 PM on November 25 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for all the input. Lots to process and try. I'll see if I can cover it all in short:

-mplayer doesn't run on MacOS any more (at least, my version). I did try that in the past.
-these were captured on a pro capture deck back in the day, but I don't recall exactly what.
-AVC - new link downloaded, but it didn't want to process them.
-The file command returns 12.m2v: TIFF image data, big-endian, direntries=0
-Stellar Video Repair was not able to do anything with them
-ffmpeg -err_detect ignore_err and -fflags discarcorrupt both returned "Invalid data found when processing input"
-And, even the MP3 files don't play when launched into VLC

I think this boils down to there's a problem with the files, which I literally haven't looked at in the last decade, though they've been moved from HD to HD over several computer upgrades. My laziness over the last 15 years of not looking at them makes me think it is likely more worthwhile to re-capture them. Which sucks, but 15 years later, I can probably up convert them to 720p, and compress them with H.265 and have a better overall capture.

Thanks for the assists; obviously, I have a lot of time with a VHS-C adapter, a VCR and a capture device in my future. This time, it'll be done with a little more future-proofing in mind...and I'll do something with the videos in a more timely fashion.
posted by liquado at 7:40 PM on November 26 [1 favorite]

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