When David Gray sees a problem—big or small—he’s driven to try and solve it. Thirty-five years of that inspired problem solving has led to an unusual reward—an Oscar®.
Gray, the Vice President of Global Services and Industry Relations at Dolby, will receive an Oscar statuette at the Scientific and Technical Awards ceremony on February 7. Gray will receive the Gordon E. Sawyer Award, which the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gives “to an individual in the motion picture industry whose technological contributions have brought credit to the industry.”
The Academy’s announcement of the honor noted: “Gray’s career has encompassed the design, refinement, and implementation of groundbreaking cinema sound technologies, including stereo optical soundtracks, digital sound on film and most recently, Dolby Atmos®.”
Building “things to get things done”
Gray’s contributions to the film industry aren’t just one or two innovations, but a long list of improvements and inventions, many of which are used regularly. “I built things to get things done, things that weren’t available,” he says. “I built little things that have been used a lot over the years.”
Here’s one example of a problem Gray helped solve: sound professionals calibrate theatres and soundtrack mixing rooms to ensure they meet industry standards. That way, the audience hears a movie’s soundtrack in the same way the filmmakers intended. But Gray realized that that process was hobbled because engineers had to depend on data from just one microphone. With more microphones, they could get readings from different parts of the room simultaneously.
So Gray worked with Claus Weideman to create the MPX-4 Microphone Multiplexer, a commonly used tool that allowed sound engineers to use four microphones. It came to be known affectionately as “the lunchbox.” “We thought it would make everything a lot better,” says Gray. “It has become a ubiquitous way to tune frequency response in theatres.”
Gray credits Ray Dolby for instilling across the company he founded this focus on fixing industry problems. “That was Ray’s philosophy: find out what their problems are and come up with solutions to solve problems, not just make something because we could sell 400 of them.”
If not for the lure of domesticity, Gray might never have come to Dolby. In the 1970s, he was having a blast building custom electronics and working on guitars, amps, and speaker systems while touring as an engineer with groups as varied as The Kinks, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Linda Ronstadt, Billy Cobham, Lou Reed, Steely Dan, and Frank Zappa. When he was first approached about joining Dolby, he declined so that he could remain on the road.
But in November 1980, Gray had a change of heart. “Had I not been interested in continuing my marriage and having children,” he says, “I probably would have stayed on the road. But being away 12 weeks at a time is not so good for relationship and family.”
Gray joined Dolby as a field applications engineer, working out of his car helping movie studios, recording facilities, and theatres incorporate Dolby technologies like noise reduction. “We worked on about 15 films the first year,” he recalls.
Work on technologies, theatres, and cinema standards
Promoted over the years to positions as chief engineer, manager, director, and now VP, Gray had a hand in designing encoders, decoders, filters, and dubbing equipment for many cinema technologies, including Dolby Stereo®, Dolby SR®, Dolby® Digital, Dolby Surround EX™, and Dolby Surround 7.1, among others. He was also instrumental in helping to roll out Dolby Atmos®. Gray has 45 film credits to his name, according to IMDb, and has designed multiple Hollywood screening rooms, including the Dolby Atmos sound system for the Dolby Theatre®, which he calls “my baby.”
One of Gray’s major projects each year is overseeing the transformation of the Dolby Theatre for its yearly use as the site of the Oscars ceremony. Dolby has been “involved in the Academy Awards from a broadcast standpoint for well over 10 years,” says Gray, and a crew of about 50 people works each year “to make [the ceremony] sound as absolutely great as it can.”
Along the way, he has helped hammer out standards for the movie industry, including one that governs how sound is handled on most movies shown in theatres today. Gray chaired the audio committee of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE®) DC28 digital cinema standards committee, which set guidelines for digital movies. The audio committee considered audio formats, bit depth, sampling frequency, channel counts, and many other details to help create consistent standards across manufacturers. With the DC28 standards, movie studios could create one digital master file for a movie that could go anywhere. That’s particularly key because most movies today are shown digitally. “Working on standards can be frustrating,” Gray admits, “but once they go out, it’s very exciting.”
“A phenomenal 35 years”
Gray describes himself in his current position as “a strategic circuit rider,” working on strategy and content deals with movie studios for Dolby. A longtime member of professional groups such as SMPTE, the Audio Engineering Society (AES), and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS®), he has come to know many people in the movie industry. “Hollywood’s a pretty small town,” he says.
“It’s been a phenomenal 35 years,” says Gray, “a great chance to use my engineering skills and business and people skills—not to sit at a bench or a desk all day—lots of different places, engineering, politics, people, contracts, moving around.”
How does it feel to be winning an Oscar? Gray replies, “Pretty incredible. It’s exciting but very humbling.” And although he speaks in public regularly and comfortably, he confesses to a case of nerves about the speech he will deliver before his peers on awards night.
Asked how he will celebrate winning the Oscar, he replies quietly, “The event is the celebration.”