Phineas and Ferb: Music, Mischief, And The Endless Summer Vacation

Cannes Film Festival

Disney XD/Disney Channel

Two writers asked each other, “What would you do with 104 days of summer vacation?”   If you think they answered, “Let’s shop around a cartoon based on the misadventures of two step-brothers and their secret agent platypus until it gets optioned,” you’d be uncovering the origins of Jeff "Swampy" Marsh and Dan Povenmire.

"We were sort of thrown together in a room as a writing team on ‘Rocko’s Modern Life,’" said Povenmire.  Adds Marsh, "I think the actual reason for it was I tend to story board things very loose and dirty, and Dan tends to be clean and tight, so they thought, if they put us together there would be a happy medium somewhere.  There wasn’t, but we liked working together." 

Marsh and Povenmire developed a concept following two young boys: Phineas (based on Phineas T. Fogg from "Around the World in 80 Days") and Ferb (based on a set builder friend who "owns more tools than anyone we know") so they could have an outlet where they could continue working together.

Their friendship endured but their professional collaboration went on hiatus during the 16 years that passed before "Phineas and Ferb" was optioned.

"Swampy actually moved to England for six years and I still had our little pitch packet that every once and a while I’d dust off and show," said Povenmire.  "Disney, who said no to us the first time, called out of the blue wanting to option ‘Phineas and Ferb.’  I called up Swampy in England and I said ‘If we get to do this show, are you going to come back and work with me?’ and he said ‘Yes, absolutely.  That’s the sound of me packing.’"

Aside from a few color changes and simplifications, "Phineas and Ferb" remained true to the original pitch.  Marsh and Povenmire based the show’s concept on the freedom, creativity and sense of exploration they experienced in their youth.

"We grew up in a time when there was minimal TV and no video games," said Marsh.  "We spent all our time doing projects: building, constructing, finding and modifying things."  Added Povenmire, " We wanted to do a show that celebrated a kid’s imagination, ‘Phineas and Ferb’ are uninhibited by the reality of not being able to do whatever they imagine."

In regards to exploring a step brother relationship, Povenmire said, "Swampy grew up with a big blended family.  Outside of the ‘Brady Bunch,’ he never really saw a family like his represented on TV.  If you’re a child from that kind of a family and you never see it portrayed in the media, it makes you feel a bit like an outsider.  So we wanted to put that aspect in our show."

Aside from their experiences as young boys, Marsh and Povenmire utilized their animation  background to develop the graphic style of the show.  Interestingly, neither man studied art.

"I took a couple of years of junior college," said Marsh.  "The only real art training I received was some architectural rendering.  I just always drew.  I didn’t really get into animation until I was about 28.  My last real job was VP of Sales and Marketing for a computer accessories company.  I freaked out and quit one day.   I had a buddy who helped me put a portfolio together in about a month.  My first job was ‘The Simpsons.’"

"I went to the Film School at USC,” said Povenmire.  "I spent some time working in the live action side of things, until a long dry spell hit when there was no work.  I took a job on an animated show, because I’ve always been an artist.  When I got the job on ‘The Simpsons,’ I was also hired to write a low budget horror movie called ‘Psycho Cop 2: Psycho Cop Returns.’  I had a shot at directing that, but I turned it down because I was having too much fun."

Having worked as artists and writers for both child and adult oriented animated series, Marsh and Povenmire apply the lessons they’ve acquired from past mentors and experiences to enhance the content of "Phineas and Ferb."

"The truth is, we make this cartoon for ourselves," said Marsh.  "We don’t make it for children; we just don’t exclude them, which is something that John Lassister once said.  When you get to writing the jokes and finalizing the content, you just want to make sure you don’t do anything that’s going to make you cringe as a parent or that’s going to alienate the younger viewers."

Adds Povenmire, "A lot of the humor in our show comes from the characters’ very flat and expressionless reactions when they experience really big things.  That’s something we got from ‘The Simpsons’ and ‘Family Guy,’ that sort of understated humor.  Early on, the network would say to us: you know, this joke is pretty sophisticated, do you think our audience is going to get it?’   We don’t care, as long as it doesn’t make the audience turn the channel.  We want to do something that’s playing to all the ages that might be in the room."  Said Marsh, "We also really like the idea that if there’s something in there that’s funny that the kid doesn’t understand, they’ll start a dialogue with their parents and ask, ‘Hey, what was that, why was it funny?’"

Marsh and Povenmire have created an equally sophisticated graphic style for their animation.  Povenmire explains he learned that style from ‘Simpsons’ creator Matt Groening.

"All the main characters are based on geometric shapes.  Phineas is a triangle, Ferb is a rectangle, Candice and Isabella are half circles.  We tried to create characters that kids would easily be able to draw themselves.  We also created characters that would be very recognizable even from a distance.  Matt Groening once said that when you are designing characters, they should be recognizable in silhouette. If you just saw them as a shadow, you should be able to tell all the main characters apart from each other."

As for color, Marsh said, "The idea at the end of the day was candy.  One of the things that I think works so well is that the characters are so bright and candy-colored and our backgrounds are a much more realistic depiction of the world: the soft green of the grass, the natural woods for the fence.  In order for all of the stuff that they do to work, their world needs to be grounded in reality."  Adds Povenmire, "I actually had discussions with Disney about this because they wanted to come up with a cool color scheme.  I just wanted it to feel like summer." 

Each episode of ‘Phineas and Ferb’ also contains at least one musical number.   Both Marsh and Povenmire are musicians that have played in bands.  They enjoy writing songs that either fit into the storyline or play over a montage.  In 2008, ‘Phineas and Ferb’ received two Best Original Song Emmy Award nominations.

"As songwriters, Swampy and I have been able to do things in styles we would never have done in the bands we used to play in.  We wrote an Abba tune, we wrote a 16th century Madrigal, we’ve done Broadway show tunes, we wrote current pop, rap, gansta rap, a Justin Timberlake song," said Povenmire.
"Head banger music," said Marsh.
"We get to do all these types of things.  It really just keeps it fun and fresh for us, because it’s easy to write melodies and chords in your wheelhouse; the place where you write the easiest.  I can just push out rhythm and blues songs all day because that’s how my brain works," said Povenmire.
"And I grew up in a musical family.  My grandfather had a big band for 70 years," said Marsh.
"Swampy’s grandfather was Les Brown, of Les Brown and his Band of Renown.  He wrote ‘Sentimental Journey’," said Povenmire.
"All of that big band, jazz, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin stuff, that’s what I grew up with.  So, I can do that relatively easily, but playing around with a rap song, that’s fun and a challenge," said Marsh.

Although some have questioned implementing the variety of musical styles into a children’s program, Povenmire and Marsh feel this diversity adds to the enrichment of the animation experience of their viewers.

"We used to get notes from time to time saying, ‘I don’t know if kids in our audience are going to relate to this song.’  Our audience doesn’t think about the styles, so it’s nice because they get exposed to other types of music without it being like ‘OK, now your going to listen to some jazz..’  They’re going to just take it on face value, as to whether or not they enjoy it, whether it makes them laugh, smile, tap their toes or move the plot along," said Marsh.  Adds Povenmire, "It’s similar to when we realized that Bugs Bunny was using classical music.  When I heard ‘The Barber of Seville’ for the first time after watching Bugs Bunny, I had a way of relating to it that made me think of it differently than if I had just heard it on the radio.  You have a familiarity to it.  Now, when kids hear a Frank Sinatra like a jazz tune, or a Busby Berkeley kind of tune, they’ll have a frame of reference for it."

In addition to writing the music, Marsh and Povenmire are still very involved in the series’ story lines and work closely with the writing and animating teams.

"The way we do the show is the animation equivalent of an improvised show like ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm.’  We come up with an outline,  give it to the story board team, which is two guys who write and draw at the same time, and they sit in a room for two weeks.  They pin it all up on the wall, and walk us through it ," said Povenmire.  Adds Marsh, “Those are the guys who are actually responsible for putting the meat on the bones of the story.  Some stories come back to a very similar outline that we gave them, and others come back completely different.  And it’s really cool to see what other people have done with it.  Like Dan said, being surprised is great."

Povenmire and Marsh continue to supply the voices of key characters in the series.  They also have a list of acting talent that has come onboard to supply guest character voices.

"We try to be open to have anyone come to us and pitch us on a voice.  We’ve been really lucky to find people that nobody knows about who are incredibly talented," said Marsh.  "We also get to ask ‘In a perfect world, who would we ask to do this?’"  adds Povenmire.  "We’ve worked with a lot of people who we really are big fans of: Vicky Lawrence, Cloris Leachmen, Sandra Oh, Ming Na, Steve Lahn, Malcolm McDowell.  So, it’s been very cool, we’ve been very lucky."

As "Phineas and Ferb" continue to grow during their endless vacation, Marsh and Povenmire have a master that they turn to in times of doubt.

"We are so much creatures of the animation that we grew up with," said Marsh.  "I followed Warner Brothers so much when I was learning how to do this job."  Adds Povenmire, "I always fall back on ‘How would Chuck Jones draw this?’   Chuck Jones was my hero growing up."