Nashville native Brian Chumney grew up watching movies at places like the Belcourt, the Franklin Theatre and the old AMC location at Fountain Square.
Later in life, he found himself sharing production meetings with filmmaking legend Steven Spielberg and nominated for an Academy Award.
If that all sounds too good to be true, hear this: Chumney made it from Music City to Skywalker Ranch with a love of film cultivated right in his backyard.
“My mom was a nurse at Saint Thomas, and she would rent things from Tower Video,” Chumney remembered of his upbringing of watching movies, which also involved catching new releases with his dad on the weekends. “I always had a constant flux of new things to watch.”
Like everyone who grows up loving movies, Chumney had plenty of Spielberg in his diet. It’s hard cultivating a love of cinema without childhood viewings of classics like E.T., Jurassic Park, Raiders of the Lost Ark and, if you’re parents are really cool, Jaws.
Also, naturally, Star Wars factors into the equation, too, with George Lucas’ sprawling space opera latching itself to the imaginations of countless generations. Chumney was among that first wave of fans.
Eventually, Chumney’s journey found him helping Spielberg’s and Lucasfilm’s movies find their voice, literally. After working in key roles within the sound department on Spielberg’s recent films like Bridge of Spies, The Post and Ready Player One and a Star Wars film with Solo: A Star Wars Story, the Nashville native earned his first Oscar nod working as a supervising sound editor on 2021’s West Side Story.
Chumney has actually been with Skywalker Sound for some time now, even going back to helping in the sound department on Spielberg’s 2002 sci-fi-fantasy A.I. Artificial Intelligence. (“I still have my crew jacket,” Chumney joked.)
2015’s Bridge of Spies was the first time he really got in the room with the legendary filmmaker and helped have an active role in shaping one of Spielberg’s films.
“It never entered my mind that I would be able to work with Steven Spielberg,” Chumney said. “It wasn’t even there as an idea. My idea was, I knew I wanted to do sound. … My goal was always Skywalker [Sound], and from there, see what happens. But, I got really lucky.”
Chumney’s inspirations, of course, went past the obvious names in the field. He said he had certain sound craftspeople that he wants to learn from, legends in the field like Walter Murch, Randy Thom and Gary Rydstrom.
“Those were like the big three,” Chumney said. “I was really fortunate, my first job was as an [assistant editor] on a Walter Murch show, and then I got in with Randy on a few shows. Now I’m working with Gary. … I never thought I would be supervising with Gary Rydstrom more than I would be Oscar-nominated with Gary Rydstrom. That’s beyond the dream.”
Though, Chumney, like everyone, had to work his way into even having a dream before he could fulfill it. Growing up in Nashville, the city best known for its melodies, helped shape the notes that would eventually play in Chumney’s future.
“I always loved sound; I always loved music,” Chumney recalled. “My dad is a musician. I was a musician. I played in high school, and I loved the … Nashville recording scene. It was hard not to have that in your blood in Nashville. … I knew it was a very competitive field, the music industry side of things.”
He flirted with the idea of being a record engineer in high school. He knew that Middle Tennessee State University had a program of note in that respect, so he decided to head over to Murfreesboro and
“It didn’t seem practical,” Chumney said about moving on to a different side of sound. “It was a bit of a pipe dream. So that’s why I became a chemistry major when I was in college because that was like a practical thing that I could do.”
Chumney said that it wasn’t until halfway through college that he could really begin to see where his two loves, sound and movies, could click together. Though, as much as Star Wars and its boundary-pushing soundwork inspired him, it was actually a beloved Japanese anime film that got the wheels moving for his career to become a reality.
“I was watching Akira,” Chumney remembered, “I always loved that movie, and I always loved the sound for the movie, and it just kind of clicked … ‘oh, wait, somebody did every single bit of sound.’ … Everything was creative, right, because it was all animation. That’s when it really clicked that, you know, that could be something that I could do, that I would love. I could combine my love of sound with a love of film, so I started to explore that.”
Flipping through the MTSU course catalog helped him find the right class to grow in that respect, and a switched major landed him in the field he works in now.
“It’s this perfect balance of science and art, and the physics of sound with the art of film,” Chumney said of his work, “and it still is a very creative discipline. … It clicks all those boxes for me. Both sides of my brain are equally stimulated by it.”
After graduation in 1998, Chumney took a leap of faith and moved out to San Francisco in January 1999, where Skywalker Sound has its home base. He got in with a couple of MTSU buddies who had similar interests and started what Chumney joked was “The Tennessee Mafia” out in the Bay.
Chumney’s gamble paid off after landing a gig with Lucasarts doing tech support right around the release of Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace, an exciting time to be around the Lucasfilm world.
“It was a hard job, but it was great,” Chumney recalled. “It was a perfect job for me at the time because I learned a lot of ways to walk people through things, fix things, fix problems. … A year later, an opportunity popped up at Skywalker for what they call a digital audio technician.”
In that role, he would work more with Pro Tools, and he would just make a bit of a longer drive to the place where he’d dreamed of working.
The late 90s and early 00s were period of rebirth for Lucasfilm, one where George Lucas had reopened the toy box to one of the most beloved film series ever and brought it to life for a new audience. For Chumney, it was an opportunity to soak in a company during a time where everyone was just like him: excited to be where they were, loving the work they were doing, getting exclusive looks at movies and games yet to come.
It was an opportunity to take in something big at such an intimate level, without much snark or unhealthy debate. It wasn’t just exciting as a fan, he remembered, but career-affirming.
“I knew I had made the right choice, that’s for sure,” Chumney said of being around such a unique atmosphere.
From there, Chumney has worked within the Skywalker Sound on countless film and television projects, spanning from Robert Zemeckis’ What Lies Beneath to next year’s fifth Indiana Jones film. He’s working with the Spielbergs of the world and being honored at the highest level of his discipline.
Though, is there a culture building more space for more people like Chumney, who grow up loving the craft of film from the ground up?
In the 90s and 00s, it was hard to get away when you went to the movies from at least some recognition of the sound system you were hearing. Whether it was one of those gloriously boisterous THX intros before a movie or one for Dolby, as the old THX ad said, the audience was listening.
Now, theaters cram in many commercials and trailers, but sound systems being recognized in the cheerleading of movies leading up to the feature presentation feels like a thing of the past unless you’re seeing a film in a premium format.
Chumney said he feels that there is a gap between how sound was celebrated when he was growing up watching movies to where things are today with theatrical presentation.
“I was in those audiences, and I remember seeing THX, and I remember seeing the logos … it made it clear to me that the artists, the sound artistry, was being celebrated,” Chumney said. “And, you’re going to be in for a great experience because it’s going to sound good. Sound is so crucial to the filmgoing experience. You need somebody to kind of remind you of that. An audience needs that.
“To have that little display ahead of time… I always thought it was a nice, warm hug from theater, saying ‘oh yeah, this is going to be great.’ … When that doesn’t happen, it comes out of people’s minds. It’s historically difficult to talk to people about sound. There’s still so much of a mystique behind it. It’s hard for people, for a regular audience member, to know about that craft.”
Chumney recommends people check out the 2019 documentary Making Waves as a great primer for folks to understand exactly how this craft comes alive.
Going from THX intros as a kid into West Side Story, the film that landed Chumney his Oscar nomination, he was tasked with helping bring the sound to live through a remake of a beloved musical movie adaptation. His task was the same as Spielberg’s behind the camera: paying homage while also justifying the benefit in resurrecting a long-told story with new lens.
“All of us started with reverence to the original,” Chumney said. “On Day 1 of us working on the sound, we all went into the Stag Theater, which is the movie theater here, and we watched a Blu-Ray of the original [West Side Story]. … This is the bar, and the bar is incredibly high, and we have a director who continues to set that bar even higher. … We can’t beat it, but we need to do it again to achieve a great thing here.
“Of course, it was intimidating, but it was intimidating for everybody.”
Though, in the end, Chumney’s job is to bring a vision and a sound to life for a director, and on a project like West Side Story, it’s the director of directors, someone whose films helped shape him in his youth.
“When you make the director happy, that means you’ve done your job,” Chumney said. “When you get that thumbs up or you get that excited cheer from Steven that we’ve done it, that’s the best feeling.”
How does someone balance that, managing being with Spielberg the inspiration with working with Steven the co-worker?
“I don’t know if I do,” Chumney joked. “For me, it’s hard because he’s so great. … When he walks into the room, it really is like, ‘oh yeah, that’s Steven Spielberg, and he made Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Jaws, and Close Encounters, and E.T.,’ and [with] the smallest time when he walks in the room and when he sits down, you’re kind of like, ‘okay, okay, get yourself together, okay, now we’re working,’ … when we’re working, you begin to focus.”
Chumney’s work on West Side Story might be a nice capsule of his experience in the industry. He set out to work with some of the sound greats, and wound up chiseling his future with those sound greats, alongside the film legends whose movies made him want to do this in the first place. Throw in guys like Andy Nelson and John Williams joining the room, and you’ve got a career that sounds quite good to Chumney.
“So many times on this [movie], I sat back and was awestruck by the talent,” Chumney said. “To be in the same room, let alone share that nomination with those guys, was amazing.”
Chumney’s 2022 work as a supervising sound editor includes Spielberg’s ‘The Fabelmans’ and the recent animated film ‘Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank.’ He will be a foley supervisor on the upcoming Indiana Jones film. He works at Skywalker Sound.