Reeling in the years

by Bret Anne Serbin
| June 10, 2020 1:00 AM

Stepping into Eric Bruer’s home office is just about the closest thing you can get to stepping back in time. Tucked deep in the woods north of Bigfork, Bruer maintains a room brimming with spinning wheels and feet upon feet of videotape as part of his one-man operation digitizing video footage that hasn’t been seen, in some cases, for decades.

“There’s a story behind every one of these,” Bruer noted as he played back a montage of home videos depicting scenes of the Flathead Valley in the late 1950s — including children running through a sprinkler, classic cars cruising through downtown Kalispell and water-skiers gliding across Flathead Lake.

“You’ll see little guys like that,” he said, pointing to a diapered boy of about three years, toddling around a yard, “and you know he’s about 70 now.”

Bruer’s expertise and his carefully-maintained equipment allow people from around the valley and beyond to recover videos from decades past. When older individuals clean out their garages or younger generations go through old keepsakes, they often uncover reels of footage depicting people and places that have otherwise persisted only in memory.

For 15 years, Bruer has been using his one-of-a-kind technological setup to transfer these videos onto CDs, DVDs, thumb drives and other updated devices to preserve the images of these bygone people and places.

“People are so stoked,” he said of his clientele, upon receiving the digitized footage of their loved ones and significant events. “I like the historical part of it.”

The thick-accented Alabama native has been plugged into the videography world since he was a teenager at a CBS news station in Georgia. His trajectory — like the technology itself —evolved over the years as he worked on videos for different industries throughout the country. He eventually found his way to the Flathead Valley 20 years ago, producing trade show videos for Semitool, now known as Applied Materials.

Bruer’s unparalleled knowledge of video technology finally led him to a career that he says he shares with only about a handful of other people around the country, using specially-made projectors and impossible-to-find broadcast equipment to digitize vintage videos.

“My fingers were in it from a very early age,” he remembered. “I get a lot of things going and I just don’t quit.”

As the technology and its users have aged, Bruer said his unique ability to preserve the past has only grown more popular. He said he gets a steady stream of customers ranging from Eureka and Rollins to Utah and California. He can comfortably convert about 4,000 feet of video in one sitting, although at the height of his productivity he said he was running a total of 40 projectors.

Bruer prides himself not only on his capacity to restore antique footage, but also on his ability to enhance videos, introduce audio and add a few professional touches. “I don’t want to just do it, I want it to look good,” he insisted.

His dedication doesn’t just stem from his love for video technology, even though that’s abundantly apparent to anyone who steps into his technology-museum-cum-office. He also appreciates the emotional significance of his special knack for keeping the past alive, one reel of tape at a time.

Every video might not be especially exciting, top-quality or skillfully shot, but most projects have still had an impact of Bruer as he learns about friends and family members who have grown, changed and passed on.

He was able to brighten one video, for instance, that allowed a young Columbia Falls customer to see his grandfather for the first time in 30 years. Another project unearthed performance videos of a dancer and her partner who passed away years before. And an octogenarian who claimed she never cries was even moved to tears when she was able to hear recordings of her favorite musician for the first time in about half a century.

“It’s kind of just archiving the past,” Bruer said, “but I get a kick out of it.” ■

To reach Bruer, call 406-837-0352 or email ebruervideo@gmail.com.

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Individual frames are shown on a 16mm film strip as it is digitized through an Elmo 16-CL Optical projector film chain setup inside Eric Bruer's residence near Bigfork on Friday, June 5. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)

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Boxes of Kodachrome 8mm film with "process before" dates in the late 1950s wait to be digitized next to Eric Bruer's Elmo K100 SM projector film chain at his residence near Bigfork on Friday, June 5. The top box contained film from a family's Memorial Day gathering in May of 1958. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)

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Eric Bruer digitizes a strip of old film showing scenes from Glacier National Park at his residence near Bigfork on Friday, June 5. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)

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Boxes of Kodachrome 8mm film with "process before" dates in the late 1950s wait to be digitized next to Eric Bruer's Elmo K100 SM projector film chain at his residence near Bigfork on Friday, June 5. The top box contained film from a family's Memorial Day gathering in May of 1958. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)

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Eric Bruer removes a reel of film containing audio to be digitized at his residence near Bigfork on Friday, June 5. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)

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Eric Bruer works on digitizing reels of film at his residence near Bigfork on Friday, June 5. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)