Julie and Steven Bernstein
Wakko, Yakko, and Dot
Pinky and the Brain
Anyone who was or had a kid in the 90s remembers Wakko, Yakko, and Dot, the Warner brothers and their sister, the Animaniacs.
They lived in the iconic water tower and ran around the Warner Bros lot wreaking havoc, having fun, and making sly cultural references for the grown-ups who were also watching. They shared their show with Pinky and the Brain, a pair of lab mice who tried to take over the world every night.
What people might not remember, though was that the music was an integral part of the show. The score ran under every adventure and helped to build suspense, or make the laughter just a little brighter, or otherwise added to the experience.
That score was the work of the husband-and-wife team Steven and Julie Bernstein, among others.
Steven says that in the 90s version, he teamed up with Richard Stone, the supervising composer, with Julie writing songs and underscore and orchestrating for Stone. Others were also brought in as the demands of the schedule warranted. Stone guided the music for the show, as well as writing the music for the main title song and the Pinky and the Brain song.
Fast forward to 2020. Come November 20, the Animaniacs are back - and as wacky and timely as ever. And the score under these new adventures adds to the adventures again, and the Bernsteins have stepped up to score the show.
How does one go about scoring a cartoon? Julie says, "Starting to watch before we've added music, that's one of the great things about getting to work on this show. It's amazing. The writing and performances entertain us right away. I would say that the writing of the music isn't easy. It's not like we say 'oh, my gosh, that's so funny' and then we go and we write. No, we struggle. It's a struggle, but-"
Steven adds, "Like any creative endeavor, you're faced with a blank slate at first, and then you dive in and end up with something."
And that "something" can't be just anything. Warner Brothers has a long tradition of cartoons, and the Bernsteins realize that they are part of that tradition.
When speaking with the pair, their partnership becomes obvious in the way they finish each other's sentences and are on the same page. On the topic of continuing the tradition of Warner cartoon music, the conversation goes like this:
I would say we do have themes, but it's like just in any kind of dramatic writing, that you're not just writing anything, there are themes.
I'm not going to say daunting, but maybe I guess excited would be the word to-
... to be a part of that decision.
Daunting in that we're trying to make sure that we don't screw it up. We've probably back in the day in the 90s, I don't know that we had that in our mind like this better be as good as, even though it was in the tradition of Looney Tunes. But this now, being so many years later and coming back to it, and knowing that the fans and the people that have gotten used to Animaniacs now-
Mostly grew up with this series.
... Yeah, now they're just watching not just in the music, but everything. Everything has to be tip top, rise to a certain level so that people will say, 'it's back.'
It's a fun thing to be on Facebook and see some of these fan organizations. And they're comparing animation styles from the first iteration to this. And with the finest-toothed comb, they're going through and finding what they like, what they don't, what's different. It's amazing the kind of dedication some people have for the show.
Many viewers are completely unaware of the underlying score that informs their television shows, and that's just the way it should be, according to Julie, who says, "Background music underscore, the job of it is to disappear." And Steven adds, "If we're not noticed, we've done our job right."
Still, the score is an important part of the experience. Julie says, "Although in a cartoon it's a little bit different than in a film, but the point of the music is to bring out something, or to step aside and let something speak. So it's not the thing that most people are thinking about. I always think of it as the music is another dimension because in life we have three dimensions and in pictures, you only have two.
"So with two dimensions, the music brings the third dimension in. But the music adds - it's just like watching somebody walk down the hall in complete silence, or watching them with some kind of-"
Steven adds, "Some attitude.."
Julie continues, "... with some score or some ambient anything underneath it. It just adds a dimension. But, it's one of those things that people take for granted, because it's the dimension that's just there."
The Bernsteins not only enjoy their job in animation and other film and television scoring, but they recognize the importance of music in their lives. Julie says, "If I didn't have music, I would die. I couldn't live without it. And I'm not talking about making a living, writing music. I just meant music. I wouldn't be able to make it."
Steven agrees. "It's a shortcut to the emotions I think. That's the way we approach it a little bit when we're scoring. We bypass the intellect and go straight to the gut, straight to the heart. And if we've done that, then I think we've achieved what we wanted to. And that's why we're so supportive of music education in schools, just to make sure that kids grow up with the same kind of appreciation and gift that we're given."
Neither of the Bernsteins set out to work in animation. Julie notes, "When I was in college and I was getting closer to graduating, I was thinking 'what can one do with a degree in composition?' It did occur to me that I just remember a fleeting thought about writing for cartoons, but then it left; it was fleeting. And then years later, we just had this opportunity come up. But I do remember thinking about it for a moment."
Steven says, "With me, I never gave it a thought. But after my master's degree, I was counseled that maybe I should check out the newly formed film scoring program at USC, which I did. And we were fortunate to have industry professionals as instructors. And one of them in particular, took an interest in me, it was Fred Steiner.
"And he happened to be scoring for the Tiny Toon Adventures at the time. And I started working with him and orchestrating, and then I actually got to do some writing. And I thought 'okay, this is interesting,' but opportunity after opportunity arose. And once you have that experience, it's very specialized. So you get more opportunities in that area."
Writing for the same show 22 years apart, the Bernsteins have noted some differences in how they approach their jobs.
Steven says, "In addition to the musical tools that we need, there's the technical tools that we've increasingly needed. At first it's complicated because of the necessities of synchronization to get because every footstep and eye blink is synchronized to the music or vice versa. But as years passed, the demands of technology increased and increased, and then we were dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century."
Julie says, "In the first iteration back in the 90s, we did not have computers in this way. We had our computers, but we did not have what we have now. So if anybody besides the composers wanted to hear what we were thinking of writing or what we were writing, they had to come to the recording session to hear it, because there was no such thing as making a mock up as there is now.
"But now we put it into the computer and we give it to the executives and they listen to it. And they can tell us, 'we want you at this point to change that.' We make changes now because we're able to make mock ups, but back then we weren't."
Technology has come in particularly handy during the pandemic. Julie explains, "We had a few live sessions. We started recording the Animaniacs reboot and then the pandemic hit, and we started doing remote recordings. So we have 30 plus musicians who are recording in their homes and sending us the track. And we, with the help of some people that know what they're doing, are assembling the orchestra.
"We're doing what we need to do with it and then we send it to our engineer, Damon Tedesco, the same engineer who would be sitting live next to us at the studio. Instead of sitting next to him and saying, 'we'd like to hear more flutes,' we are actually emailing him, or texting him 'more flutes.' It's an amazing thing, this remote recording."
Steven agrees. "And it would have been impossible not that long ago, so that's part of that double edged sword of the machinery. We can get so close now to what the producers will be hearing with the live players that they know what they're getting ahead of time. We know, we can see what works and what doesn't and much more efficiently."
Not that they prefer the current way of working to live recording. Julie says, "Although doing it on the computer, even with the sounds, that we have these modern sound, it's never the same as live.
"And even the remote recording is never the same as live, because the musicians, when they're in a room together, they breathe together. They breathe and they play together. They adjust their sound to each other almost subconsciously, they play in a certain way together that is impossible to do when you're not in the room with people."
Steven adds, "It's not the same. And the tracks that we're given were sent after they're recorded, they're 30 soloist tracks. They're 30 individual soloists and then we assemble them. And ever so slightly every once in a while, we edit them so that the performance is together. And it's been an incredible process."
Julie agrees, "It's been a unique experience; we've learned a lot, a lot. And unfortunately, it takes a lot more time too, so that takes away time from writing. But we've narrowed, we're finally by the end of the season, we had gotten it down to a few days of between the preparing the tracks for the players, and then getting them back and assembling and working with our mixing engineer and mixing and all of that stuff.
"We got it down to a few days, but at first it was a week and a half. It's a majorly different thing than we could ever have imagined."
Animaniacs begins streaming on Hulu on November 20.