February 1, 2013 7:21 pm

FT masterclass: Voiceovers with the creators of Phineas and Ferb

How hard could it be to say a few words of dialogue for a cartoon?
At the mixing desk: Isabel Berwick and son Gabe with Jeff Marsh and Dan Povenmire©Alastair Levy

At the mixing desk: Isabel Berwick and son Gabe with Jeff Marsh, left, and Dan Povenmire

It’s difficult to know how to prepare for a tutorial on how to “voice” characters for an animated TV series. I decide to watch cartoons with my nine-year-old son Gabe while we sit on the sofa eating biscuits. Then we practise our cartoon voices. His make me laugh. Mine cause him to hide under the cushions in shame.

On the day of our voiceover class we find ourselves among a group of other novices, competition finalists who have joined us at Pinewood Studios to meet Dan Povenmire and Jeff “Swampy” Marsh, co-creators of Disney XD’s hugely successful animated series Phineas and Ferb. (According to Disney, half the children in the UK watch the show and, having been on air since 2007, it is also the channel’s longest-ever-running original animated series.)

Three boys and three girls are competing for the chance to voice two lines of dialogue for Phineas and Ferb. One boy will become a cool barista and one girl will be selling smoothies. (In my notes I write “Two lines? How hard can it be?!”) Gabe and I are under less pressure – we are just here to learn and have a go at the same voice-overs. We all start the day with a group class, led by Marsh and Povenmire.

The pair – who mastermind every Phineas and Ferb episode – met when they worked on The Simpsons in the late 1980s. “Dan was character layout and I was background,” says Marsh, who is the smaller and quieter of the two – though both of them qualify as lively by ordinary office standards. (At one stage they break off their talk for an impromptu light sabre duel with their laser-pointers.)

Isabel Berwick and son Gabe©Alastair Levy

Isabel and Gabe at the mic: 'No, Mummy, you were way too slow'

Povenmire had started to sell his artwork when he was still a child, and used the proceeds to go to film school. Eventually he had to choose between a job on The Simpsons and a writer-director role on “a slasher movie”. (Thankfully, my son does not ask for an explanation of this term.) He chose The Simpsons, where he met Marsh, a refugee from a career in sales and marketing.

In 1993 – when both were working on other shows – Povenmire drew a triangle-headed cartoon boy as he was waiting for his food in a California restaurant. “It excited me so much I drew the other characters at home and we built the show around these drawings. Then it took another 13 years to make it.”

Each episode starts as a page-and-a-half synopsis, and is built up using drawing and storyboards at the same time as the writing. “That’s the way the WB [Warner Bros] and old Disney shows were done – you draw while you write it,” says Marsh.

Phineas is still a triangle-headed preteen. His English stepbrother, Ferb, speaks just one line in each episode. The pair spend their summer holidays inventing crazy schemes and contraptions (leading to adventures such as time travel and the construction of a luxury beach resort in their back garden). Their older sister Candace is always thwarted in her attempts to “bust” the boys’ outlandish schemes. And, in often baffling espionage subplots, the family’s pet platypus doubles as a secret agent.

The pair also voice characters on the show – Marsh is good guy Major Monogram and Povenmire is Dr Doofenshmirtz, the reliably incompetent evil nemesis (with a very silly voice to match). Povenmire says they had very clear ideas about how these characters should sound, so it made sense to do the job themselves. “Either that or find actors to do impressions of us, which would have been kind of stupid.”

Voiceover, they warn us, is far harder than you might think. Marsh offers: “This job is, at its core, professional idiocy. The big thing is not to be afraid to stand up and look like a bit of an idiot. It’s a little weird at first … Don’t worry if you make a mistake, just keep rolling on; some of the stuff you hear is from three or four takes.”

Much, much later, having consumed way too many carbonated drinks and doughnuts by way of pep-prep, we are taken into the recording suite. Gabe goes first into the tiny booth. Headphones on, the cartoon starts to play. Wait for the cue – three beeps, then start talking on the imaginary fourth beep – matching the pace of the onscreen character. Gabe is delighted to be voicing the part of a barista billed as a “male hipster” and laughs hysterically as he reads over his lines: “Yeah man, you know, it’s all about my blog – I blog about blogs, that blog about other blogs.”

Two characters in the TV cartoon series Phineas and Ferb in search of a voice: the smoothie seller and the barista

Two characters in search of a voice: the smoothie seller, top, and the barista

After two overly laconic takes, he has the rhythm, a north London teen drawl that gives me an unwelcome preview of what he’ll sound like once his voice breaks. It draws applause from Marsh and Povenmire at the mixing desk. “True professional,” says Marsh. Gabe smirks, helps himself to a seat alongside the experts, and has to be warned off touching the hundreds of tempting-looking buttons and faders.

Some actors struggle with the restrictions of the recording booth and the lack of body language, Marsh says: “We had one actor who came in and would not stop until he did all the same body motions as the character on screen.”

It’s my turn. I am the girl smoothie seller handing a soft drink out from a van. I don’t hear the beeps. Then I miss my cue. On the third take I manage to mumble: “That’s one exotic dragonfruit smoothie for you, and one for you.”

“You were really out of time,” says Gabe cheerfully. I go again. “No, Mummy, you were way too slow.” Marsh and Povenmire remain diplomatically tight-lipped. I give up, defeated.

It turns out that the answer to my scrawled question “How hard can it be?!” is “surprisingly tricky”. Saying two lines in sync with a cartoon character is a multitask too far for me, let alone thinking to give it the right emphasis and intonation – the right “read” as they say in the trade. Povenmire waves us off. “The biggest advice we always give is to learn how to get comfortable looking like an idiot.” So, so true.

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Isabel Berwick is associate editor, FT Life & Arts

The “Phineas and Ferb” episodes featuring cameos by the winners of Disney XD’s Aim High mentorship scheme air on Disney XD on March 14 at 4.30pm. For details of the Aim High mentorship scheme, visit www.disneyxd.co.uk/aimhigh

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