Peak Views: Animating Everest

This is not a photograph: Patrick Imbert’s The Summit of the Gods.
This is not a photograph: Patrick Imbert’s The Summit of the Gods.

French animator Patrick Imbert on adapting The Summit of the Gods, the grandness of Everest, the parallels between climbing and art, and the influence of Emmanuel Lubezki.

“Walking. Climbing. More climbing. Always higher. And for what?” The Summit of the Gods opens in sepia tones on a windswept alpine slope, as two climbers equipped with primitive breathing apparatus and a Vest Pocket Kodak camera inch their way up Mount Everest.

Then, the present day: magazine photographer Fukumachi Makoto is in a Nepalese bar, after documenting the failing progress of more mountaineers up Everest’s unforgiving southwest face. Makoto is offered a scoop: “Mallory’s camera,” alleged to have belonged to early Everest explorer George Mallory, who was last seen with his climbing partner Sandy Irvine on June 8, 1924, on the mountain’s northeast ridge. This sets Makoto on the path of tracking down a legendary Japanese climber, Habu, who has not been seen in several years.

Fukumachi Makoto documents Everest mountaineers in The Summit of the Gods.
Fukumachi Makoto documents Everest mountaineers in The Summit of the Gods.

With previous roles as animation director for Ernest & Celestine and April and the Extraordinary World, and co-director of The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales, French animator Patrick Imbert steps up with The Summit of the Gods. His adaptation of the manga of the same title by the late artist Jiro Taniguchi and writer Baku Yumemakura (itself adapted from Yumemakura’s novel) takes on the unenviable challenge of turning five volumes of alpinist obsession and historical intrigue into a 90-minute feature.

Imbert pulls it off with aplomb, deftly maintaining both the patience, heart-stopping action, and awe-inspiring scale of the obsessive man-versus-nature story. Imbert impresses most with the terrible beauty of the landscapes its characters seek to conquer.

I am an artist, I draw and I do it because I like to do it. There is no reason for me to do it. And these guys are the same. They climb because they climb, that’s all.

—⁠Patrick Imbert

The words ‘manga adaptation’ might take one’s mind to something more fantastical and heightened, but Taniguchi and Yumemakura’s work is one of subtlety, something that Imbert honors through The Summit of the Gods’ visual and sound design. Sun rays peeking past a cliff-edge. The stillness of night. The brief flap of a collar in a light breeze.

The Summit of the Gods premiered at Cannes this year, and is already one of the highest-rated animated features on Letterboxd for 2021. We caught up with Imbert ahead of the film’s theatrical and Netflix releases to hear more about his approach to animation, including when to bring in 3D, and when to let the grandeur of the Himalayas take over.

Makoto-san makes his way up a slope. 
Makoto-san makes his way up a slope. 

Taniguchi-san’s art style is one of almost obsessive detail, which I imagine is very tricky to adapt to animation. I wanted to ask you upfront, what was the key to finding a way to adapt his style to what you wanted from the film?
Patrick Imbert: Well, I have to say that I didn’t really try to adapt Taniguchi’s style. I didn’t even try to design the same faces. Generally in 2D animation, when you draw, you avoid [including] so many details because you don’t have time to do and redo the same drawings if there [are] so many details. We have to do some because of the equipment for climbing, the ropes and all of this. The result is a mix of my taste and something which is doable.

Regarding the global look of the movie, I tried to go into the most cinematographic look possible. My influences were [neither] the manga—because it’s [in] black and white—or an animated movie, like Ghibli movies by Hayao Miyazaki or Isao Takahata. We mostly looked at live action, such as Iñárritu’s The Revenant. I love the work of Emmanuel Lubezki’s photography; it was the main axis for the design.

I was interested to hear about your use of 3D software in creating the interior spaces.
Well, we use 3D only [as a] base; that can help us to build the perspective or stuff like that. We draw over some very basic 3D with blocks, only blocks, and so we can easily [place] the camera and move it in the room. We use it for the rooms, everything that is built globally—buildings, interiors, or whatever. But the 3D doesn’t go much further. We did also use 3D for some vehicles—like some driving cars—but only when the car is changing [its] axis. So it happens maybe twice in the movie.

For the mountains, we based the paintings on photos. We tried to make them as realistic as possible—although the goal is not to just be realistic, but to be impressive. So we first do a realistic drawing and painting, but we have to turn it into something else. It’s just a long and tough job to paint everything. It’s 2D, so it is flat, and we cannot have a drone view that turns around the mountain, and so you have to find solutions that don’t come from camera movement.

Habu back in the city between Everest visits.
Habu back in the city between Everest visits.

Despite that flatness, I thought there was so much depth in those paintings.
Yeah. But we work a lot to have this depth. It’s a question of focus and the question of putting some atmosphere, like the texture of the snow and everything. You can create this depth with both color, light, composition, focus. No need to have 3D for this.

You mentioned Studio Ghibli, which is known for these very serene and peaceful portrayals of nature. Here, we have sequences where these characters’ lives are constantly threatened by their surroundings.
Takahata is one of my idols! Even if I don’t try to [create] the same frame as a Studio Ghibli regarding colors or whatever, the work of Takahata as a director had a big impact on me. I’m a great, great fan. Regarding the nature itself, the goal here was not to show a quiet mountain. It’s more… it’s grand, basically.

That’s why the further we go in the movie and in the mountain sequences, there are more wide shots that show the scale between the characters and the mountain. The mountain itself is of course, the dramatic canvas. It’s literally part of the narration of the story.

Buntaro takes in a sunset, one of several nods to Isao Takahata in The Summit of the Gods.
Buntaro takes in a sunset, one of several nods to Isao Takahata in The Summit of the Gods.

Speaking of which, I was really impressed by how much of Taniguchi and Yumemakura’s work you managed to include in this film. How did you decide what to bring from the manga itself?
It was not easy at all. Let’s say the main choices, the main axis, which was for me quite easy to do, because this is what I felt when I read the manga. So I decided to have this axis based on these two characters’ paths, because I felt that the novel, on which the manga is based, I think it was the main subject of the novelist.

But then you have to build the story, and this is not easy. During all the writing process, and also during all the storyboard/​animatic process, it happens that what seems to you evident is not that much and you redo a lot. So I don’t have any rule regarding what I wanted to reach. I knew what kind of things I wanted to reach, but you discover little by little how you do it. You see what I mean?

It wasn’t easy to do. You have to throw away a lot of things from the manga, because it’s so long and you have to keep what you feel is essential. You cannot just pick up the scenes and put it together. So it’s a question of rebuilding.

Habu, Fukumachi and Ang make an offering before a climb.
Habu, Fukumachi and Ang make an offering before a climb.

And what was the core of that story for you that you wanted to rebuild the film around?
At the beginning I wasn’t sure, because I did not know this Mallory and Irvine history before. At the end of the manga, there is an homage, a tribute, to these climbers, but I didn’t want to do this, because it doesn’t have enough of an effect on me. And when you work so long on a project, it has to be close to you. So I took time and asked myself: ‘What is, exactly, what I think and what I feel about this story?’ And I used it to build the photographer’s arc.

So you felt a connection with the photographer, Fukumachi Makoto, discovering this world of climbing?
Yeah, because as I didn’t know anything about mountain climbing, I discovered everything. And yes, it was both surprising because these guys are totally crazy, but I think I could understand some parts of their psychology because they have obsessions. And maybe I thought it was parallel with the creative way to do things. And as I am an artist, I draw and I do it because I like to do it. There is no reason for me to do it. If you ask me why, I cannot tell [you] anything. And these guys are the same. They climb because they climb, that’s all. And this parallel helps me to understand the way they think.

The Summit of the Gods’ is in select US theaters now, and streaming on Netflix from November 30. Comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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