When “Animaniacs” returns with all-new episodes Nov. 20 on Hulu, a key ingredient of the original animated series will also return: orchestral music by Steve and Julie Bernstein, two of the series’ primary composers from its 1993-98 run.
Five of the show’s eight Daytime Emmy Awards were won by the “Animaniacs” music team, including the Bernsteins, who have spent most of their careers in Warner Bros. animation, from “Tiny Toons” and “Taz-Mania” to “Pinky and the Brain” and “Histeria!”
And while their work brings a sonic consistency to Warner brothers Yakko (voiced by Rob Paulsen) and Wakko (Jess Harnell), and Warner sister Dot (Tress MacNeille) — as well as world-domination-seeking Pinky (Paulsen) and the Brain (Maurice LaMarche) — what’s unusual is the presence of 30 to 40 musicians on every score.
Virtually all TV animation is now scored with samples and synthesizers emulating the sound of an orchestra, with the occasional addition of a real player or two to help breathe life into the drawings. “Animaniacs” will be the exception, and executive producer Steven Spielberg is said to have insisted on “live” music as before. (“He’s very hands-on,” exec producer Wellesley Wild told a recent New York Comic-Con audience.)
All of the raucous fun of the series, visually and musically, was on display when Variety visited the first session in January at the Warner Bros. scoring stage. “Are you Steve and Julie’s parents?” asked concertmaster Bruce Dukov, tongue planted firmly in cheek, as the composers welcomed their musicians, many of whom played on the original series in the ’90s.
What followed over the next six hours were wah-wah trumpets, comic bassoons and xylophone runs for the cartoon trio dashing across the Warner lot, all “Animaniacs” trademarks rooted in the classic approach of composer Carl Stalling for vintage WB cartoons from the ’40s and ’50s featuring Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck.
Steve, conducting a 39-piece orchestra, kept the players amused with wild musical gestures, while Julie — seated beside engineer Damon Tedesco at the mixing board in the booth behind them — conferred with her husband via intercom, offering suggestions for performance improvements.
Reflecting weeks later, Steve explains: “The main vocabulary that was established in the original shows has stayed the same. What’s different now is there’s more of a cinematic approach to chases or a special event. That style has become bigger. The scores are tailored to the individual stories; they’re little movies.”
Adds Julie: “There is a style, but there’s not a playbook. It’s more of a feel, because we know the characters so well. There’s a little less Mickey Mousing,” she notes, referring to the expected synchronization of music to image. “If there’s a joke, or something scary, it’s a little less cartoony.”
The pandemic threw everyone a curve beginning in March, but the Bernsteins have continued via the new trend of remote recording, having 30 musicians perform their parts in their homes, then combining and editing the tracks into a unified whole, which they send to mixer Tedesco. (He was an assistant on the WB stage 25 years ago while the Bernsteins were recording the earlier incarnation of “Animaniacs.”)
“We give him 30 soloist tracks,” says Steve Bernstein, “and he gives us back an orchestra in the room.”