Feature Alum Profile: W. Jay McGarrigle Print

W. Jay McGarrigle, ’56

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Jay McGarrigle at the Academy Awards Technical Ceremony. Photo by Greg Harbaugh, 2007 AMPAS
At the 2007 Academy Awards, actress Maggie Gyllenhaal got a round of applause simply for pronouncing the word “densitometer” correctly. The complex instrument—which measures the density of a motion picture soundtrack—may not be a household name, but W. Jay McGarrigle’s Technical Achievement Award comes from the same people who hand out the Oscars. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recognized McGarrigle, ’56, for his role in developing the densitometer at its Scientific and Technical Awards Banquet Feb. 10.

When presenting the award, Gyllenhaal joked that she did not understand the definition of the densitometer.  She is hardly alone.  McGarrigle’s invention measures a soundtrack for negative and positive densities, a very technical Technical Achievement.  It has been used in nearly every major motion picture since McGarrigle and his colleagues perfected it in 1986. The densitometer is responsible for creating realistic sounds in otherwise noiseless environments, such as spaceships in space.

After graduating from the UW with degrees in mechanical and industrial engineering, McGarrigle worked for18 years with GE, Boeing and McDonnell Douglas. In 1972, he set out to establish a company with a friend who had experience with densitometry.

“Unfortunately, he left our start-up after four months,” recalls McGarrigle. “Thus, to survive, I was left to learn everything beyond the basics of densitometry on my own.”

By 1976 he had designed his first densitometer specifically for the motion picture industry, and in 1986 he created the Brumagic MPST, for which the Technical Achievement Award was given. The device is unique in its ability to measure sound track densities, as well as color balance, in film. It has become the de facto world standard for measurement of both analog and digital sound track densities, and is now used in over 100 countries.

McGarrigle, who retired after selling his business to the Hollywood Film Company in 1988, is pleased to have been remembered by the company as the original designer, as well as by the academy for his contribution to the film industry.  He shares the award with sound engineers Albert Ridilla, Papken Shahbazina and Ronald Belknap.

But why was the Brumagic recognized this year, more than 20 years after its invention?
“It is the company who nominates a product for an award,” explains McGarrigle. “Damned if I know why Hollywood Film Company waited so long, but their first application was accepted.”—Sarah Anderson