Five-time Emmy award winning composer Steven Bernstein is perhaps best known for his work on (in my opinion) some of the best Saturday morning cartoons of the late 1990s - including Taz-Mania, Animaniacs, Pinky and the Brain, Baby Looney Tunes and many others. Of course, animation isn't all he can do. Being classically trained and well-versed in a wide variety of genres has kept him plenty busy, whether it be on screen or in a concert hall.
Nick Dolan: Just to start off, what was your musical background before your career kicked off? Did you always know you wanted to work with film?
Steven Bernstein: I started playing the piano at age 5 and continued lessons through college with a brief break in high school. I did everything musical one can do in school--jazz band, choir, show choir, musical theater. After a bewildering year as a chemical engineering major, I saw the light and switched my major to music composition and theory. I got my Bachelor of Music from the University of Colorado and then a Master of Music in composition from USC. Postponing real life as much as possible, I entered USC's very first class of the film composition program, then called "Composition for the Music Industry".
ND: Earlier in your career you started working with Fred Steiner on Tiny Toon Adventures, how difficult was it to learn how to write and orchestrate for animation?
SB: Orchestrating for animation didn't prove that difficult for me. I think the main reason is that the particular Warner Brothers style, i.e. Carl Stalling and Milt Franklyn, is based on traditional classical orchestration. The writing is another story. I watched the old class WB cartoons as a kid and still enjoy them immensely. I was familiar with the sound. But working alongside Fred, who was a stickler for detail and a brilliant composer, was invaluable. I also orchestrated for the late Art Kemple and a few others. These guys really studied the style and I picked it up both but studying and through a kind of osmotic process.
ND: How does your writing process for animation differ from writing for live action?
SB: It's 180 degrees different in most ways. In classic animation scoring, the composer needs to be intently focused on the timing, both for physical events and gags, but also the comedic timing. There is a very definite rhythm to animation which must be considered. Once the decisions of what to hit are made, THEN the challenge is to make the score musical and seem inevitable. Live action scoring is much more fluid, giving lots of time to establish mood, character and emotion and, unless it's an action scene, much less attention to physical events. All that being said, I was very fortunate (in retrospect) to have been assigned many episodes of "Animaniacs" which had little to no dialogue and a whole lot of action. I had much more freedom to develop themes and larger arcs than in the more comic shorts.
ND: What has changed in musical style and aesthetic in animation scoring since you started your career?
SB: First off, the budgets are different. After around 2000, it's been necessary to write and produce the music electronically. I was dragged, kicking and screaming, away from my pencil and paper technique. Besides process, though, the aesthetic seems to be based more on popular, current (for now) sounds and styles. There doesn't seem to be as much emphasis on helping set up the jokes and develop and enhance character. I think maybe it's now more like live-action scoring.
ND: What has changed in the film scoring industry as a whole since you've started?
SB: Virtually anyone with a little disposable cash for gear can produce a score. The electronics have leveled the field. Additionally, more attention is paid by directors to rock musicians. It's hard for me not to comment on the dubious results. The better directors are able to use the pop/rock elements to enhance their film. Those who don't understand (or care about, really) the subtleties of scoring to picture are definitely doing a disservice to their project. It's interesting to me now that someone with my training has now become a specialist, being called on to orchestrate and arrange music for a large ensemble.
ND: Can you tell us about your most memorable experience?
SB: That's a tough one! My 10-year plus tenure at Warner Brothers was all memorable. Maybe the time I conducted my first episode with the orchestra ranks way up there. Winning the Emmys was definitely memorable! What a shock and thrill it is to hear your show being announced!
ND: Where do you see the future of the industry going?
SB: Anyone who tries to predict the future of an artistic field is doomed from the start. It could be a continuation of the current trends or a complete u-turn to techniques and aesthetics of the past. I can't pretend to even venture a guess.
ND: For young composers, what would you say are essential skills to have to work in the film business?
SB: Technical skills and thorough training in engineering and music production have become essential. Without that experience and know-how, people entering the field can't compete. Demos need to sound like the finished product. All that aside though, I still think a deep understanding of music theory and music history is mandatory for true success.
ND: What are you working on now?
SB: I've just finished the score for a very interesting horror film set in Thailand. Now that it's been completed, I'm hoping to get back to working on my suite for 2 violins that I'm writing for some friends of mine who are absolutely brilliant violinists.
Thank you Steven Bernstein for a great Q&A! For more information on Steven is up to, check out Resinous Music, Inc.
Film | Music
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