How to Rip DVD Clips

DVDs[This is a guest post by Jason Mittell, Associate Professor of Film & Media Culture and American Studies at Middlebury College. Jason blogs at Just TV.]

In my previous post, I detailed how the new DMCA exemption allows all faculty to legally rip excerpts from DVDs for educational purposes, whether in-class lectures, online posting in a digital publication, or at conference presentations. (Anyone interested in the legal issues raised by the ruling should definitely read law professor and fair use advocate Peter Jaszi’s commentary.) I have found that even among film & media studies professors, who have had a similar but more narrow exemption in place since 2006, one of the chief obstacles to exercising this right to rip is not legal, but technological. Even faculty who are fluent in video editing software can find the ripping process technically cumbersome and confusing.

It’s important to note that this awkwardness and confusion is by design, as DVDs were created to be a one-way flow of access for viewers, and the copy protection systems were in place from the beginning to avoid the easy rip-and-share access that challenged the music industry. While most computer users are familiar with the conversion from CD to mp3, there are too many steps and hurdles in video for most people to keep track of, not to mention an array of file formats and codecs. Nevertheless, there are a wealth of tools available to enable the extraction and editing of clips that should help faculty, students, documentarians, and other producers of non-commercial videos exercise our fair use rights.


Every one of the many different software protocols available for making clips from DVDs offers its own workflow and need for partner programs. To understand the options, it’s important to understand a couple of key variables:

The first is whether circumvention of copy protection software (or DRM), the process that the new exemption now allows for, is necessary in the first place. According to the Library of Congress ruling, we are only allowed to circumvent DRM when the use requires the high image & sound quality that ripping provides; in cases that quality is not needed, we should use what is often called “the analog hole.” The hardware solution for this is to literally take a video camera and shoot a screen playing the relevant clip. The more streamlined digital method is to capture the screen as you’re playing the DVD, using tools like Snapz Pro or Camtasia. The downsides to this method are numerous: the resulting quality is often subpar in terms of image quality, smooth motion, and cumbersome file size; the recording process requires realtime uninterrupted playback of the video; and the software can be buggy and expensive. (The multi-standard video player VLC has some built-in capture tools, but I have not gotten them to work on a Mac—see this guide for PC capturing.)

Thankfully, I believe that superior image quality is usually necessary for teaching, as we need to make sure students experience a film or video clip as the creators intended it to be seen. So the DMCA exemption allows educators to circumvent DRM for noncommercial purposes.

The second variable to think about before choosing a tool is what will you do with the resulting clip. If you want to edit the clip into a larger video piece, such as a documentary or video essay, you need to extract clips into the highest quality source file with minimal compression, suitable for using in a video editing application like Final Cut or iMovie. A good pair of applications for this process is using Mac the Ripper and MPEG Streamclip, both free downloads—see this useful how-to post by media studies professor Bill Kirkpatrick for a guide to this process. Also see Fairmount as an open-source alternative to Mac the Ripper, and this video tutorial to walkthrough the process.

Extracting Video using Handbrake

My primary use of clips does not require sophisticated editing, so I prefer to extract video into a more compact but high-quality format like mp4 with H.264 compression, suitable to play in class, embed in a slideshow, upload to a video server (like YouTube or Vimeo), save to my hard drive, or burn to DVD. I’ve found that the most straightforward and effective tool for this ripping is Handbrake, a free open-source multi-platform tool that can extract clips from most DVDs directly to mp4. I’ll outline this process for Macintosh, but the software is available for Windows and Linux as well.

Before extracting a clip in Handbrake, you need some key info about where your clip is located on the DVD. Find the relevant segment on a DVD player, and jot down the precise Title and Chapter number—for feature films, the Title is typically 1 but for DVDs of television shows, short films, or special features, you might be deeper into a menu. Every DVD player displays this info differently—in the Mac DVD Player, the easiest way is to play the clip and look under the Go menu items Title and Chapter to see what is selected.

Once you know the clip location, open Handbrake and click the Source button in the upper left corner to select the DVD in your drive. After scanning the DVD, Handbrake will let you select the relevant Title and Chapter range for your clip—while you can rip a larger segment of a DVD and then trim the clip down, the ripping process is time consuming and eats up hard drive space, so it’s best to preselect as narrowly as you can. Click the Browse button to specify the destination for your video, and name the file appropriately. Clicking Toggle Presets will open a window with options for potential destinations designed to adjust the video size and resolution—the Normal default is a fine option when in doubt. While there are many other options to tweak, for most uses the preset defaults should work fine—a couple of exceptions would be if you want a different audio track (like foreign language dubbing or director commentary) or subtitles.

Using Handbrake

If you’re only ripping a single clip from a DVD, click Start; for multiple clips, click Add to Queue and select the other clips before Starting Queue. The ripping process takes awhile, but less than real time playback, and you can work on other tasks as Handbrake is working. The resulting video will be high-quality and manageable in size—in my test run, a 10 minute clip at Normal quality resulted in a 107mb mp4. If your clips are coming out with problems in size, aspect ratio, or audio, make other adjustments detailed on the Handbrake user guide.

One limitation of Handbrake is that you can only specify clips as corresponding to DVD chapters, while often you only need a smaller segment. Mac users can easily trim a video file using either Quicktime Pro (for systems 10.5 and below) or Quicktime X (for systems 10.6 and above). In Quicktime Pro, select in and out points for the video using the I and O keys or sliders beneath the video timeline, and then choose Trim to Selection under the Edit menu. For Quicktime X, choose Trim under the Edit menu, and use the yellow sliders to select your clip. You’ll need to save the trimmed version as a .mov file, Quicktime’s native format, which can be used in most applications. You can also trim the original video in any other editing platforms you may be more familiar with, such as iMovie.

Once you have the video clip on your hard drive, how you use it is up to you. I typically have a folder of teaching clips at my disposal to bring up in class as needed. I also regularly embed the video clips in my preferred slideshow application, Keynote (although PowerPoint will work as well). While I prefer running through my computer, you can also create a clip DVD to play on a standard DVD player without a computer connection, using a program like iDVD. You can also upload them to a server, whether a local video site on your campus or a broader site like YouTube or Vimeo. I’d recommend Critical Commons as a site to host video clips along with commentary, as the site is designed to facilitate fair use in analysis and criticism of moving images.

Are there other tools that you’ve found helpful in making or processing clips? Or do you have questions on making Handbrake work for your ripping needs?

[Image at beginning of this post by Flickr user Andres Rueda; Creative Commons licensed.]

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