Rory Panagotopulos is a Boston native with a Venice Beach soul, whose lifelong love of skateboarding inspired his short “Thrashin’ USA” our 9th Go! Cartoon. When he’s not animating the crowd-pleasing interstitials of MTV shows like Girl Code, Rory is hanging out with his dog Bosco or creating skate-related content such as gifs of the Gundam robots catching phat air—quality content accessible on his Instagram. I caught up with Rory to talk sketch comedy, bad 80s action sports movies, and turning your childhood neighbors into over-the-top cartoon villains.

How did you start animating?

I always wanted to do art—funny art, if possible. I knew I wanted to animate but didn’t really know where to start. The first things I made were claymations In high school—my aunt and uncle were getting rid of their giant 80s VHS camcorder, so I used that and just hit ‘record’ and ‘stop’ really fast.

An illustrious beginning. Where’d that take you?

I went to college for Computer Science. It was back when the belief was that everything was going to be 3D animated from then on. So I started getting into 3D animation, and found that it wasn’t for me. I’ve always loved drawing and making characters, and I was got lost in all the technicality of 3D. So I started focusing on art in college instead, and realized I could easily use a computer to make 2D animations.

Wait, so… you became a Computer Science major just to do 3D animation?

Yeeeaah. I was so mystified by animation that I was like, “3D animation is done on computers right, so Computer Science major it is.” 

Oh man.

It culminated with me and my friend sort of tricking our advisors into letting us make a movie our senior year. He was a film major and I was like an Art major, Comp. Sci. minor at that point. Our movie had 3D animations that I did the full animating on – way too much for one person, so it didn’t look great – but it was an animated movie.

That’s cool. Did you submit it to festivals?

Ohhh, yeah, noo, it wasn’t a fit for festivals. But we did meet people from MTV because of it. Randomly, a dude at MTVU reached out to us after seeing it. And oddly enough, the same person I first met at MTV, 10 years later, is the person I work with now at MTV.  

What do you do for MTV now?

Technically the gig is with the independent production company that the executive producer of the shows I work on created. But I make the little explanatory animations for the show Girl Code.

Neat! So did you go straight into freelance animating after school?

Actually, no. Me and the friend I made the film with moved to New York and started doing comedy stuff at Upright Citizen’s Brigade. Just to make stuff, we’d make YouTube videos and would put animation in them.

Comedy stuff! Was that acting, writing, stand-up?

Sketch shows, which we did for about 5 years. They have house teams at UCB, so every month we’d host a different sketch show—it was great training for writing. And we did a few big shows, like one called “Dog Fleet”. It was like a live on-stage Saturday-morning Cartoon parody. Sort of like a Ninja Turtles toss-up, but with dogs.

Actual dogs onstage?

Oh, no, that would’ve been bad, ha—just people. People with very rudimentary dog ears on their heads. And they were obsessed with beans instead of pizza.

Ah, gotcha. So this comedy stuff, it couldn’t have been paying the bills?

Not quite! I was working at a book publisher, Simon and Schuster, doing the #1 most boring job in the arts. I’d go through editor’s corrections for books and make sure they didn’t mess up the page layout too much. So scrolling through books all day adding commas.

And then you’d let out all that steam with the comedy at night?

Pretty much! I liked that job because it ended at 5pm, and I wouldn’t think about it again until the next morning. Lived that double lifestyle for a while. Then the guy I met at MTV started doing Girl Code, and reached out to me and was like, “Oh, do you still do animation?”. At first I was like, “No”.

Ha! Shut down.

I wasn’t exactly like “No” but I was like, “Oh, I dunno, this comedy thing is pretty cool.” But I eventually got too bored of the other job. So I reached out to him and was like, “Hey, are you still doing that?” And he was like “Actually no, I’m not.” But he graciously introduced me to the new person who was running the show. So that’s how that gig started.

Did you dream of making a cartoon as a kid?

Definitely, I was obsessed with cartoons. We didn’t have cable until I was like 12, so any time a cartoons came on TV, I was watching it. It was basically Ninja Turtles and all the action 80s and 90s cartoons like GI Joe and Centurions. And I was totally obsessed with the X-Men cartoon, which I actually re-watched recently and found to have the most insane complicated plot of any cartoon. I definitely didn’t understand what was going on when I was a kid. I guess I was just like “Oh my God! Wolverine!”

So what do you work on in your own time?

The awesome thing about doing freelance is I can take a full month here and there to work on personal stuff. I did an animated web series a couple years ago called “Garbage Time”. It’s about two kids sitting on the bench for a basketball team, something I did a lot of my freshman year of high school. I did everything for it: writing, casting, recording, animating. I learned why so many people work on animated projects—it’s a lot to make. If I’m more busy, I make wacky photoshops that I usually share on Twitter.

So did you come to pitch to Go! Cartoons?

I knew of Frederator through Adventure Time or Fairly OddParents. I don’t know what landed me on the website… again with the theme of me not knowing what I’m doing. But I saw the Go! Cartoons program, and was like, “Oh, I definitely want to do this”. “Dog Fleet” was originally going to be my cartoon pitch, but my friend wanted to do it as a sketch show, so that’s how that went.

But I still wanted to make a cartoon, so I came up with two new pitches. My girlfriend and I were coming out to LA for a wedding, so I scheduled my pitch for then, and figured if I’m going all the way out there, I’ll wow them with two – not just one – pitches. In hindsight, neither was good. Eric (our VP Development) gave me great notes and a quick class on pitching, and I took his advice home, came up with and boarded “Thrashin’ USA”, and did a better pitch over Skype.

What was the advice you were given on pitching?

Well, because the shorts are only 5 minutes, character is key. You have to get a very good, likable character out to the audience as quickly as possible. And then you also want the story to be simple and to the point. The ones I’d pitched before, nothing really happened. They were kind of like mumblecore. So when I went back I tried to make a very tight story where actions happened in sequence, and you get to know a character, and you actually feel good at the end.

What inspired “Thrashin’ USA”?

I loved skateboarding in high school and college. I was terrible at it, but I’ve always loved it, and skate culture in general. And it was on my mind at the time because my nephew was turning 5 and wanted a skateboard for his birthday. I was like: #1, it’s crazy that you’re 5 and you want a skateboard; and #2, I was remembering how when you’re a kid, it’s so hard to get anything. So I thought about a kid trying to get a skateboard or get his skateboard back, and that’s where that idea originated.

Also, my neighbor growing up was named Mrs. Tracy. And before I had a board, they always had this old 70s banana board in the back of their garage that I would just see. I’d always think, “Oh man… I just want to get that board.”

Were you guys friendly… was she evil? Is she gonna see your short?!

I think she was a very nice woman – definitely not evil. We were always like, losing balls in her backyard, so I think she was more annoyed with us than anything. The way my dad is… I’m sure he’ll see her on the street and try to explain it to her and she’ll be like, “Okay.”

Who were the inspirations for Pau and Gabby?

Pau basically looks a lot like my nephew, so that’s true to life. With Gabby, I wanted there to be a cool skater girl, and to avoid any kind of ‘damsel in distress’ trope. She’s as good a skateboarder, if not better than Pau.

Did you know any cool skater girls growing up?

Not really. Mostly because me and my one friend in high school who also skateboarded were too bad to go to skateparks or anything. But I think some of the reason behind that was that back then, and still now, skateboarding has an annoying “boys club” vibe. I think part of my intention with Gabby’s character was to raise the representation, in a small way, of skateboarding being a cool thing for girls to do. I’d rather paint a picture of skateboarding that’s more open to everyone.

Well you know one now! Not sure I count as “cool” though. Do you still skateboard?

Nah; the last time I did was back when I was still doing sketch comedy. I was using a skateboard as a prop in a show, so I skateboarded 5 or 6 blocks from the train to the theater, and my knees hurt so much afterward that I was like, “Ok, well, that was fun while it lasted.”

Where you grew up, was skateboarding a big part of the culture?

I grew up in the suburbs of Boston, and definitely not. The things kids liked were baseball and hockey. I watched a lot of TV shows as a kid about skateboarding and California and it always seemed like this awesome fantasy world where everybody skateboarded. Really I only had one or two friends who also skateboarded. But it was this cool thing where we were from a place people wouldn’t skateboard, but we were doing it anyway. And being from Massachusetts, we had to have a chip on our shoulders because it’s cold all the time. So it was this point of pride like, “Yeah, let’s go skate even though it’s freezing.”

Do you know what you’d do with a Thrashin’ USA series?

Well I’ve drawn a lot from the bad skateboarding movies that were made in the 80s and 90s. There’s one called Thrashin’ that is definitely my favorite of them; it’s basically Romeo and Juliet set against a downhill skateboarding race. There’s a rollerblading one called Airborne. And they make no sense. They’re supposed to take place in the normal world, but it’s all over-the-top and skateboarding is the most important thing in the world for everybody. And I was like, these could be good, if the conceit was that this is a fantasy world where skateboarding is super important and everyone cares about skateboarding, cause that’s just not reality. So that’s the idea: to build that kind of world and treat it as a fantasy.

Have you thought about Pau and Gabby’s arcs?

Well I imagine that this world would have levels of competitions. So I see them both entering the town competition, then regional, state, and all the way up to universal competitions. And it’d become a dynamic where they’re working out whether they have feelings for each other, and whether those will be affected by the fact that they’re both very focused on skateboarding and trying to be the best in the world at it.

Would Mrs. Tracy remain a primary antagonist?

Yeah, I like her as an antagonist because one of the goofiest things about those 80s skateboarding movies is how ridiculous the villains are. It’s (dramatic voice) parents, teachers, COPS. You know, people who are generally just trying their best but because they’re enemies of skateboarding, they’re public enemy #1 in this world. So I like the heightening of strict teachers, crazy neighbors—Mrs. Tracy just trying to get vengeance for her azaleas.

What are your biggest influences and favorite cartoons?

For “Thrashin’ USA” specifically, the title comes from the song “Thrashin’ USA” by The Bones Brigade, that actually took their name from a skateboarding crew from the 80s—so doubly ripping off. They were like a thrash metal band I was really into in college that did a lot of songs about skateboarding and eating junk food.

Some of my favorite movies of all time are the Bill and Ted duology. I think it’s had a big influence on my humor and ideas. I’m a fan of Genndy Tartakovsky’s stuff – definitely Samurai Jack, but I feel like his Star Wars: Clone Wars cartoon gets overlooked. That was my favorite cartoon for a while. One of my favorite animated movies ever is called Interstella 5555. It’s basically a Daft Punk album that they made an anime over, and the story is of a super popular alien pop group getting corporatized by an Earth record company. I also really liked Daria and Beavis and Butthead. When Adult Swim and Toonami became a thing, I was all about that. 

And what are you working on now, as personal projects?

Well I was inspired by the whole Go! Cartoons process, so I’ve just been like, coming up with a lot of pitches and character ideas. One that I’m working on now is about a BMX bike gang—sort of like Daria crossed with Akira.

I’d watch! Thanks for the chat Rory. I’m excited to see the projects you slide into next.

– Cooper