I've got an old video CD I made years ago. It has a video on it I've since lost on tape format. I'm trying to convert it to an easier to play everywhere mp4 file. While the mpg file I copied from the disc to my machine is lower resolution, it looks decent when I play it in VLC and enlarge the player size. It's soft but not distracting, kind of like VHS used to look on an old CRT TV. However when I convert it to an H.264 file, it gets all crappy looking. Lots of blockiness and so on. I've tried converting it with a few pieces of software, VLC itself, Photoshop, After Effects and Handbrake. Same results each time. For some reason Adobe Media Encoder won't open it even though Photoshop and AE will. Strange.
I realize I'm making a conversion from one compressed format to another and starting with an already low resolution file (320x240), but I was hoping I could get at least the same kind of look as the mpeg1 file. All my settings are high bitrate 8-10Mbps, which is way overkill for an H.264 file of that resolution. So it can't be that.
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The original is 320x240, what size does the converted file end up as?
Reencoding a video with a lossy codec can only make the quality worse. That said, using sufficient bitrate and decent settings the quality loss should be minimal. Filtering and proper upscaling can also help. Upload a short sample from before and after your conversion.
Why convert at all right now if you don't need to? Especially if the quality of the original was acceptable.
MPG1 should be playable in nearly everything.
I figure at the same resolution I would see similar results but I'm getting blocky results.
Just a bold guess ... MPEG-1 video decoders in some players may filter artifacts caused by the limited bitrate of VCD. While converting the material, the converter's decoder may not filter them much, and the following AVC encoder will try to preserve them instead. So you could try to use a conversion workflow which includes a deblocking and deringing filter.
If your converter uses AviSynth: MPEG2Source (DGMPGDec package) has a "CPU" (and "CPU2") parameter which controls which filtering technique is enabled at all, and "moderate_h|v" parameters to tune the strength. It already depends on the quantization of the material: The coarser it is quantized, the stronger the filtering will act. That's the advantage to be implemented inside the decoder; the disadvantage is that the filtering technique is not the smartest of all times...
A material independent AviSynth deblocking filter is "DeBlock"; it is based on the technique used in AVC/H.264 decoders. Unfortunately it assumes a constant quantizer in the range of H.264 quantizers. You will have to tune it visually.
And there is an older script "Deblock QED" which tries to deblock especially 8×8 pixel patterns (typical for MPEG-1 Video) sensitive to the detected amount of blocking.
In either case, it would cost you some time to tune the filtering to avoid too much loss of details.