Today marks the 80th birthday of legendary animator, director and educator Richard Williams. Born on March 19, 1933, in Toronto, Canada, Williams may be (along with Hayao Miyazaki) the most important and influential living animator today.

His credits stretch across decades and include features (Raggedy Ann & Andy: A Musical Adventure, The Thief and the Cobbler, Who Framed Roger Rabbit), TV specials (A Christmas Carol, Ziggy’s Gift), movie titles (The Charge of the Light Brigade, What’s New Pussycat, The Pink Panther Strikes Again), shorts (The Little Island, Love Me Love Me Love Me) and thousands of TV commercials.

He is the bridge between the Golden Age of hand-drawn animation and today’s endless stream of computer-generated blockbuster features. He has spent decades imparting the knowledge that he learned from the greats (Art Babbitt, Grim Natwick, Milt Kahl, Ken Harris, Emery Hawkins) to younger generations. For decades, he ran a studio that was as much a school as it was a production studio. Later, he traveled around the world to teach masterclasses, and more recently, he has reached his largest audience through the bestselling book The Animator’s Survival Kit.

His legacy in animation will be discussed for decades to come, as will his inability to finish his most ambitious feature film project The Thief and the Cobbler, but I would argue that his greatness does not stem from any single project. More than any film he made, it is Williams’ lifelong commitment to craft and his pursuit of excellence that will be remembered. He has unwaveringly promoted and upheld a standard of quality throughout his career, even during eras when such standards were considered unfashionable.

Williams’ ambition to create spectacular animation has always trumped all other considerations. Take the following commercial he single-handedly animated in six weeks:

In another animator’s hands, this would have been an instantly forgettable TV spot, but Williams turned it into one of the most breathless pieces of action animation ever committed to film, complete with dramatic camera motion, animation on ones, and exquisite rendering. In comical contrast to the prosaic product being advertised, the animation is an epic achievement.

Williams’ best work, be it commercials or fragments of The Thief and the Cobbler, offer an indescribably exhilarating thrill. It is the stuff that animation lovers live to see and of which we see far too little. One of Williams’ mentors, Art Babbitt, said, “Everything we’ve done up till now hasn’t even begun to scratch the surface of what animation can do.” Williams has been scratching away at that surface for the past sixty years, and has time and time again revealed new possibilities that were previously inconceivable.

You will not be disappointed by spending some time exploring Williams’ career output at the indispensable Thief Archive on YouTube, including this peerless sequence of pure visual excitement from Thief and the Cobbler:

Richard Williams’ current project is a soon-to-be-released interactive iPad app version of his Animator’s Survival Kit which will also include a copy of his new animated short Circus Drawings.

Happy Birthday to Richard Williams, an animation rebel and master.

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