Ex-writers for Rocko's Modern Life' return to TV with Phineas and Ferb'
April 6, 2009 at 5:03 p.m.
Updated April 5, 2009 at 11:06 p.m.
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By Rick Bentley
BURBANK, Calif. — The walls of Dan Povenmire's office on the Disney Studio lot are covered with odd drawings and weird objects. How many people do you know who have a full-size replica of a shark's head protruding into the room?
One of the strangest bits of decoration is a framed piece of torn white paper with a small, hastily-drawn doodle of a character with a triangle-shaped head.
What would be considered trash by most is really an animation treasure. It is from that simple sketch that the new hit Disney XD and Disney Channel series "Phineas and Ferb" was born.
"My wife and I had gone to a restaurant in South Pasadena where they have this white paper on the tables. They give you crayons to draw with. I was sort of experimenting with head shapes. I had never seen a triangle-shaped head on any character. That's where Phineas came from. I loved the way he looked so much, I tore it out and told my wife this is the show I am going to sell one day," Povenmire says.
He was right.
"Phineas and Ferb" is the handy work of Povenmire and Jeff "Swampy" Marsh. The pair met years ago while working as writers on the animated series "Rocko's Modern Life." They knew then that they wanted to create an animated series together. It justtook 16 years for it to happen.
Marsh had actually moved to England because the series idea seemed dead.
"When I called Swampy to ask him if we get the show going would he come back, he told me 'That's the sound of me packing,'" Povenmire says.
What the pair have created is a kid-and-adult-friendly cable series that features the show's title characters, Phineas Flynn and his stepbrother Ferb Fletcher. They are an inventive pair who are having a fun endless summer, much to the chagrin of their sister. Little do any of them know that their pet platypus Perry is actually a secret agent.
The show has become a ratings hit for the cable channels. It has also picked up numerous award nominations, including two Emmy nods. All of that is well and good. But as far as Povenmire and Marsh, along with their creative team, are concerned, the series is a daily opportunity to write, draw and create music for a show they love.
Story ideas are pitched by the show's four writers. So far they've included the search for the Lake Nose Monster, the construction of a platypus translating machine, giant gelatin and a thumb wrestling competition.
"On Mondays we get together where the writers will say 'What about a story where this happens?' They will usually have something written up for us. We go through it and say this is working, this isn't," Povenmire says.
Although the animated stepbrothers seem to be able to do fantastic things, there are actually some very strict rules as to how they can operate. The pair's wild antics cannot appear as magical.
Once an idea is selected, the writer creates an outline of no more than two to five pages.
"The outline includes the structure of that story. Some suggested dialogue. Some suggested situations. We never have an actually script until after the storyboard artist is done," Marsh says.
Every square inch of the walls of a conference room is covered with sheets of white paper. Each paper is divided into two parts; each part has a rough sketch of a scene from the show.
This storyboard process is the way to visually outline each episode. The creators or a writer will present each story. It's like a small one-man play. Povenmire, Marsh or one of the writers become quite animated as they talk their way through the episode.
Every effort is made to deliver the lines as close to the character's voice as possible. That's easy for the show's creators. Marsh is the voice of Major Monogram and Povenmire voices Dr. Heinz Doofenshmirtz.
"We have the entire crew come in so we can get a gauge of who is laughing at what," Povenmire says as he stands in front of the storyboard for an upcoming episode.
Marsh adds, "Those who don't laugh, we fire."
He's joking. A lack of laughter just means either a small part, or the whole episode, is not working. Those parts are rewritten and new storyboards are drawn.
Once the changes are made, the storyboards are scanned into a computer to use during voice recordings.
When a script has gone through the storyboard process, the voice talents are brought in to record the dialogue. Along with the show's two creators, the character voices are provided by Vincent Martella (Phineas), Thomas Sangster (Ferb), Ashley Tisdale (Candace), Caroline Rhea (Mom) and Dee Bradley Baker (Perry).
At one time, when once a voice was recorded, it was nearly impossible to make changes because each panel was drawn and painted by hand.
These days, the animation work is done with computers. That means corrections can be made almost to the moment the show goes on the air.
"The actual dialogue seems to be the thing that is the most volatile," Marsh says. "All the way right down to the last moments we will re-write lines to make them funny."
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One of the unique parts of "Phineas and Ferb" is the music. The show has featured tunes in genres from big band to rap. Most of the tunes have been written by Marsh and Povenmire. It usually takes about one hour to write each original song.
"The storyboard will just say 'song goes here.' We get everything from 'we have no idea' to complete ideas," Marsh says.
A song is needed for an upcoming episode where Phineas and Ferb end up at a robot rodeo. The tune will be German techno with a touch of country western. Writer Martin Olson, who occasionally sits in on the music sessions, has joined the pair in Povenmire's office.
As Povenmire tunes his acoustic guitar, Marsh scribbles on a pad. He rips off the page and hands it to Povenmire. As he plays a very mechanical sounding beat, Povenmire begins to croon the first lines.
"I'm not a cow. I'm just a boy. With my mechanical bovine toy," sings Povenmire.
The work continues. Povenmire checks a rhyming word Web site for ideas to end a line. Berry works on the best chords for the chorus. Marsh continues to write potential lines. Before long, the tune has taken shape.
The process from story idea to storyboards to voice recordings to songs will repeat as soon as the current episode is finished. The result is one of the hottest animated shows in the crowded world of cable cartoons. And, it isn't just kids watching.
"We get letters that say thank you so much. This is the first show that me, my wife, my 14 year old, my 8 year old and my 4 year old can watch together and enjoy all together," Povenmire says. "We had one guy at ComicCon come up and say 'Thank you for making an adult show for kids.'
"That's a nice way to put it. We are just trying to make ourselves laugh. We willlaugh at the juvenile stuff. But, we also laugh at something more complicated."
And it all started with a scrap of white paper.
PHINEAS AND FERB
8 a.m. Saturdays, Disney XD. Repeats air 8:30 p.m. Fridays, Disney Channel
(c) 2009, The Fresno Bee (Fresno, Calif.).
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