The Music of ‘Animaniacs:’ An Interview with Julie & Steve Bernstein

Julie & Steven BERNSTEIN at their studio in West Hills, CA. Oct.28, 2020

Julie and Steve Bernstein are the epitome of a power couple. They work harmoniously together on projects like Animaniacs and now its reboot, and conversing with them was a delight. They banter, they finish each other’s sentences, and their passion for their work clearly evident.

Julie has worked in animation as a composer, orchestrator, arranger, conductor, singer and producer. Some of her projects besides Animaniacs include Tiny Toon Adventures, Freakazoid, Histeria!, and Pinky and the Brain.  

Steve is a conductor, orchestrator, and producer, and has worked on films such as Skyfall and The Perfect Storm as well as the shows Baby Looney Toons and Taz-Mania, among many others.

The couple met when they were set up by friends who told them they had so much in common, both being composers. Julie: “And the truth is that like many couples we have everything opposite— although it’s true we are both composers, but opposites definitely attract because we are different personalities.”

But how did they get involved in cartoons? Julie: “When I was in college I started studying composition/ theory. That was the major. And it started to occur to me that I was getting toward the end of college and wait a minute what am I going to do with this.” She “fleetingly” thought that cartoons have classical music as the underscore, and that requires a background.  “I really didn’t think about it until years later when I was writing on cartoons and then I thought, wow I really did plan this!” She went back to school.

As did Steve, who met Fred Steiner, the instructor at his film scoring program. Steiner is probably most well-known for his theme to Perry Mason.

Animaniacs came into their lives after they were invited to a dinner for the preservation of music, and by chance their friend Mark Watters attended, though he was only stepping in for someone. Watters had done a lot of Disney work. He sat at their table, and they learned he had been working with Richard Stone. Stone went on to Taz-Mania while Watters went to Disney, so their partnership ended. Stone needed someone to help him with Taz-Mania, so Watters said he would send Steve’s music to him. It worked out perfectly, and then came Animaniacs.

Of course, I had to ask about Steven Spielberg. Sadly, the Bernsteins have only worked with him through the showrunners.  They did meet him, however,  when Pinky and the Brain spun off from Animaniacs, and they chatted with him and took a picture with him. And they’ve heard through the grapevine that his favorite episode is West Side Pigeons, a clever and fun parody of West Side Story (Spielberg’s next film is a remake of the musical, delayed until 2021). They also heard that Spielberg played the episode for Martin Scorsese, who has a statue that features prominently in the episode.

Steve:  “That was one of the toughest episodes to parody because [Leonard] Bernstein did his own turning upside down and doing backwards and he was so thorough, and his economy of composition … it was really hard to find something, some sort of technique I could use to do something with his music to make it sound like his music but not actually be his music …”

Speaking of changing music slightly to fit the series … they haven’t really done any parodies for the reboot yet, though they did work on the Jurassic Park theme by John Williams for the first episode. This has been widely viewed and shared on social media, as it was the first clip released from the new show. They didn’t rewrite the music; they only adapted it for a smaller orchestra. They joked that they arm wrestled over who would work on the piece, and Steve won. He had to do a few tweaks, but Julie says that if done right (which it was!), the piece can really sound like a bigger orchestra played it, as opposed to 30 or so musicians. They boosted the perception of the orchestra during the original Animaniacs.

They managed to complete two and a half episodes live before Covid lockdown in March. Julie: “And since that day in March we have been doing our sessions remotely with 30 plus musicians who are each in their own homes sending us the tracks. We prepare for them a reference track and a click track. We do some preparation. We get it to them. They record each individually in their own space which of course they don’t all have the same space. They record remotely. They send us the tracks, we assemble them, do a little bit of editing if there’s anything needed,” because the musicians don’t all have the same microphones or programs or acoustics. “but I think … we have got it down to a science. We have everybody working on it and knowing exactly what to do to make it sound good.”

Composing Season 2 will likely begin after they have a couple of weeks of vacation! And even though the best way to record is to have everyone in the room, there are no immediate plans to have the orchestra together just yet. Some shows are doing live recordings, but they’re doing one section at a time, such as brass, woodwinds, strings, etc. “And I think that we’re probably going to go back when it’s safe for everybody to be in the same room.”

I had to ask them about the time they met John Williams. They were commissioned to write a piece of music for a small ensemble, a singer and three instruments. It was the First Annual Living the Legacy Award for Young Musicians, honoring an oboe player that was retiring. A lot of people were there, including Williams. Afterwards they went up to talk to him and Julie said, “he even said something I wish I had tape recorded. He said something about how he liked the piece that we had written.” Steve jokes that he hasn’t washed his ears since. “It was it was really a thrill to meet him and he was quite charming.”

Their process for scoring is to get the video and watch it, and re-watch it. They divide it into short segments and separate to write, making sure they’re “always going back and forth to make sure that we are making one consistent piece of underscore.”

And though they don’t write the songs, the music supervisor gives them the key so they know how to lead into and come out a song. “If there’s a song coming we need to know exactly when does the song come in and what key is it in.”

In watching the new episodes, I noticed that they bring in well-known (or perhaps more obscure) tunes that have been around for decades or more and are in the public domain. How do they decide when to use those?

Steve: “You know if there’s if there’s any kind of musical pun or reference that somebody might catch somewhere [like me!], it’s really fun for us to put them in and it saves us having to write it.”

Julie: “And sometimes we just do it because it’s fun for us. That’s part of the tradition.” They also point out that only the musician may realize it as they’re playing, because sometimes it’s just four bars, but it’s enough to make them chuckle … And we figured that even if they didn’t notice it consciously maybe subconsciously they’re getting it.

Also another fun thing they do, that perhaps isn’t instantly noticeable, is distorting well-known themes like Pinky and the Brain. “We might play them upside down or do something or if there’s another character with them you might hear two melody lines fitting in with each other.” Hint: be sure to pay close attention to the Julia music in the new episodes.

And finally, what is it like for them to be back, composing for the Warner siblings after so long? Steve says it’s like riding a bicycle, and Julie said they’re thrilled to be doing it.

You can listen to the full audio of this interview with the Animanicast at Retrozap. Animaniacs (2020) premieres November 20 on Hulu.