Oscars: Sci-Tech Honoree David W. Gray on the Digital Transition, 3D and Lessons From Ray Dolby

Dolby's Gray will be honored at Saturday's awards ceremony, hosted by Margot Robbie and Miles Teller.
Courtesy of Dolby
David W. Gray

This story first appeared in the Feb. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

He's a regular at the star-studded premieres at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, but he rarely attracts any attention. Instead, David W. Gray is the guy peering out from the projection booth. But on Feb. 7, the 35-year Dolby vet will step into the spotlight to receive the Gordon E. Sawyer Award, an Oscar presented to an individual for technological contributions, during the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' annual Scientific and Technical Awards, which will be held at the Beverly Wilshire hotel.

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A veteran sound engineer, Gray, 65, led the 2012 technical update at the Dolby Theatre and continues to ensure that all screenings there go off without a hitch. His career has encompassed the design and rollout of cinema sound technologies including stereo optical soundtracks and digital sound on film. He also has served on the Academy's Sci-Tech Council and its theater standards committee, as well as chaired an audio study group for the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers that led to setting key digital cinema standards.

What did you learn from Dolby Laboratories founder Ray Dolby, who died in 2013?

I learned to be humble. He was a man with unbelievable accomplishments, but he was always so humble and down-to-earth. He also taught me — which I was not good at when I joined Dolby Labs — to listen. He was really a listener and always asked questions.

Has there been any additional work on the Dolby Theatre in advance of this year's Oscars?

Yes, we had done [sound] surrounds in the orchestra, parterre and mezzanine one. This year we added mezzanine two, so more people will hear surrounds. We also added a significant amount of absorption in mezzanine three.

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Do you think most moviegoers have an appreciation of how sound is used in Hollywood movies?

I think that people think about sound in movies too realistically. [Sound professionals] are thinking more about how it can help to tell a story and create emotion.

How do you think the transition to digital cinema has gone?

Overall, it has gone really well. 3D was important to the transition because a lot of chains wanted 3D, and that was [only possible] with digital cinema. I think the standards are standing the test of time with enough expansion capability for [features such as] 4K, high dynamic range and immersive sound.

What still needs to happen?

There's probably still more work to do on education around loudness or sound's dynamic range. There's still variation in theaters in terms of playback. The more we get to where theaters and dubbing stages are working on the same level [then the closer we'll be to] the way the director intended it to be heard.