The Killer Three-Step Streaming Movie Hack

Around the time that The Beverage’s hard drive crashed, the July issue of MacLife arrived with a typically triumphant cover promising “15 Essential iPad How-Tos!

An issue of MacLife is always good to inspire a project or two, and after having just resurrected the MacBook Pro from the ashes with spare parts and tiny screwdrivers, I was feeling the urge to take on something else. A tantalizing item on the cover tease said, “Rip & load DVDs,” so I cracked it open and flipped to the story.

You can find the on-line version of the MacLife article here, and it has a bunch of good tips for iPad owners. But the real killer hack is the process (described at page 5 of the link) for ripping and compressing DVDs into iPad compatible files. That handy step-by-step provided the tools and inspiration forming the first link in a chain that eventually led to a long sought holy grail of sorts in my digital life – streaming movies on the home network.

We own not a small number of DVDs. Over the course of a decade, they’ve been picked up from grocery store checkout counters and giant bargain bins at Blockbuster, exchanged as gifts and accumulated in big, heaping binders under and around the TV. Some are classics, some are special personal favorites and some are forgettable. Over time, they had proliferated to the point that they became unwieldy and difficult to enjoy.

Various efforts to order this chaos – including a painstakingly constructed Bento database – had proven insufficient to bridge the gap between wanting to watch a movie and quickly finding a movie that we wanted to watch. Research revealed that giant DVD-changers often worked well for a bit, until the disks became so dusty that they would no longer play. The answer was obvious, if seemingly unattainable: digitize the collection onto a giant hard drive, get them into the magical iTunes database complete with metadata and stream them to the Apple TV.

The Apple TV is an awkward beast, a machine with seemingly great potential but left orphaned by Apple. The Beverage has included one in the home network for several years, but it has never seemed to work well for much of anything. It is, basically, a wifi-enabled video iPod with an HDMI-out port, and it syncs with iTunes running on another machine.

If you don’t have an Apple TV, don’t stop reading. This story ends perfectly well if you just want to watch movies on your laptop or even iPad. But for The Beverage, the Apple TV gathering dust next to the piles of DVDs gathering dust formed a perfect pair. One month and a lot of sweat equity later, I have nearly 100 movies stored in a 500 gig external drive attached to my old iMac and available for streaming to the Apple TV, each one complete with spiffy poster art and sorted into custom genres.

The process to get there is basically the same as the one you likely went through over the past 10 years with all your old CDs. It is more cumbersome and substantially more time consuming, but basically the same. Once you get used to the workflow, it is mindless and repetitive, but the result is glorious! It is ultimately three steps: (1) creating .m4v files, (2) importing them into iTunes and (3) syncing them to Apple TV (or iPad, if that’s what you want).

In case anyone is wondering, The Beverage does not offer legal advice, but this is clearly fair use under existing copyright law. The Supreme Court previously held in the Betamax decision that so-called “time shifting” of programs aired on broadcast TV by recording and replaying them later was protected fair use and did not constitute copyright infringement. The Ninth Circuit has recently reaffirmed that analogous “format shifting” or “space shifting” of media that you already own from one physical incarnation to another is “paradigmatic noncommercial personal use” protected under copyright law. The key words there are “personal” and “noncommercial.”

Step one in this process – creating a usable .m4v file from a DVD – is the hardest. Again, it is covered step-by-step in the MacLife article (skip to page 5), and I won’t recount it here. Briefly, you’ll need three pieces of software: RipIt, Handbrake and Subler. You use them in that order, and the process can take up to a few hours for one DVD, depending on how fast your machine runs. This is a pure speed test for CPUs, and the MacBook Pro encodes video literally twice as fast with its 64-bit processor than its 32-bit cousin the iMac does. You can queue up a tranche of files to encode overnight, so it isn’t like you have to sit there watching this work the entire time, but it isn’t quick.

Subler does the special work of adding the metadata to the file – like actors, directors and the all-important cover art – that makes it look pretty in iTunes. Sometimes Subler doesn’t find good cover art, but you can find it yourself. Just type the movie name into Google and do an image search. Find a good poster that you like, right click and “copy image,” then paste it into the “artwork” tab in the Subler window.

After encoding the files and loading them up with metadata, you have an .m4v file of around 1-2 gigs, which you can copy onto an external drive. For step two you need to get that file into iTunes. This is easy, except that you don’t want iTunes to copy the file onto your internal hard drive where the rest of your iTunes library resides (unless you have a massive internal drive and aren’t worried about a couple hundred gigs of movies). Here’s how you do it:

Open iTunes and the Finder window for the external drive where you copied the .m4v file. Now, hold down the option (alt) key then click and drag the file into the iTunes library. This will create a reference in your iTunes library to the file on the external drive without copying the file into your main iTunes library. The trick of this is of course that you have to have the external drive connected to watch the movie, but that shouldn’t be a problem.

Now you can watch the movies on your computer in iTunes, but that isn’t quite good enough. If you want to enjoy a movie on the big TV in your living room or the tiny screen on your iPad, you’ve got to take it to step three and sync-up.

The trick with syncing movies to the iPad is that the external drive again needs to remain connected to the computer when you sync with iTunes, but beyond that you should be able to figure it out.  At 1-2 gigs each, you can fit a few movies on even your 16 gig iPad, and Half-n-Half took several kid movies on hers for the long vacation airplane trip.

For living room viewing, you could simply copy the files over to the Apple TV, but that takes forever over wifi and the hard drive on mine is only 20 gigs. What you want is for the movies to stream to the Apple TV while still residing on the large external drive. The trick to do this is to set up the syncing preferences correctly on the “Summary” tab of the iTunes sync screen for your Apple TV.

First, select “Custom Sync” and then uncheck the button that says “Show only the synced items in my Apple TV.” Now, when you sync your Apple TV, you should see all the movies that you’ve mapped to iTunes from your external drive available for immediate viewing under “My Movies.”

This all sounds hard, but you can do it. The result is amazing. It is already changing the way I interact with video content in the same way that ripping all that audio into iTunes did 10 years ago.

It used to be that we listened to entire CDs. We may have skipped a bunch of tracks, but you popped one in, used it up, then popped it out and listened to something else entirely. Now, we pick up audio in bite-sized chunks. In fact, a whole genre of modern popular music is composed of basically assembling bite-sized chunks of audio from other sources into nifty new patterns.

The same thing is happening with video. We used to watch whole shows, but then TiVo liberated us to skip the parts we didn’t like. Next YouTube gave our attention-starved brains a limitless source of tiny bite-sized videos. Now people are creating new forms of art by mashing together videos from many different sources into compelling montages.

With our old DVD collection digitized for on-demand streaming, I am starting to watch only parts of movies. Maybe I’ll watch the last half-hour of Miracle before a big game, or the “Coffee is for closers” scene from Glengary Glen Ross to get fired up for a crucial meeting. Eventually, the idea of sitting down to watch an entire two-hour plus movie will seem like sitting through the Vienna Opera wearing a tuxedo and holding tiny spectacles up to your face. People will still do it, but only out of a sense of ostentatious anachronism. Welcome to the future.

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5 Responses to “The Killer Three-Step Streaming Movie Hack”


  1. 1 Better halfandhalf July 18, 2010 at 3:05 pm

    I want tiny spectacles.

  2. 2 Gary the Bartender July 19, 2010 at 9:54 am

    excellent use of the word ‘tranche.’ also, while I agree that the digitizing of video will change the way people consume it radically and fundamentally, I disagree regarding the “strong” form of your hypothesis — that no one will watch a whole movie anymore. Quite simply, enjoyment of the narrative form is a fundamental of human nature. We humans will always enjoy a story, from introduction to exposition through to climax and dénouement. People like stories.

  3. 3 The Beverage July 19, 2010 at 9:56 am

    Agreed. I really just mean that the stories will get shorter. I find it hard to watch whole (long) movies anymore without going to the movie theater, which I equate to the opera house on a certain level.

  4. 4 sudie July 19, 2010 at 2:20 pm

    Or the opening of Troy . . . Is there no one else?

  5. 5 The Beverage July 19, 2010 at 2:24 pm

    Absolutely…that is in the rotation. It gets pretty boring for a half hour or so after that until they land the boats.


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