Patrick Imbert on Reaching New Heights with “The Summit of the Gods”

For much of the making of “The Summit of the Gods,” Patrick Imbert could easily identify with his lead character Makoto Fukamachi, a freelance reporter quite literally chasing down the story of Habu Joji, an elusive mountain climber who has his sights set on Mount Everest, but by the end of the challenging adaptation of Jiro Taniguchi manga series, he could likely relate more to the mountaineer.

“It is good to finish because it’s a tough job, so finishing is good in itself because you’re free,” Imbert said recently. “And what happened next is not my business because I did my job and I’m trying to take a certain distance. If it’s good and the audience likes it, well, that’s good and I’m happy, but if it’s not, it’s not important.”

After all, like Habu, the director knew whatever fate had in store for the film, the achievement of it could never be taken away for him personally. However, people have liked “Summit of the Gods” and then some, following its premiere at Cannes and its subsequent jockeying for prime position for this year’s Best Animated Feature at the Oscars. “The Summit of the Gods” marks a professional apex for the director, who previous directed segments for the charming anthology “The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales” and served as the animation director for “April and the Extraordinary World,” and his own ascent mirrors that of Habu, who is single-minded in his pursuit of braving Annapurna to scale the southwest face of Everest. Still, it isn’t what Habu is about to do that draws the attention of Makoto, but rather what the journalist believes he carries with him, tipped off to a camera that the climber may hold that would prove once and for all whether George Mallory, the last thought to lead a successful expedition to the mountain’s peak, actually did.

Cryptic as Habu may be about the camera, Makoto isn’t easily thrown off the trail and the film becomes a stirring study of what drives both men when both go after goals that seem all but impossible with little reward at the end but mean the world to them personally, and “The Summit of the Gods” becomes as harrowing in what they’re willing to reveal to one another as much as what they endure physically. Not only do Imbert and crew take full advantage of the freedom of possibilities afforded to them in animation to capture the danger of mountain climber without actually putting anyone at risk, the film’s resplendent, painterly Edward Hopper-esque evocations of loneliness in the city bring out the fact that there is as much of a journey of the soul at play as there is by foot for Makoto and Habu. With the film opening in theaters this week where its majestic heights can be properly appreciated before making its way onto Netflix, Imbert spoke about the many adjustments he had to make along the way when he wasn’t originally planning to direct the film and it was initially conceived to be CG rather than hand-drawn, as well as being culturally sensitive to the Japan-set story and how the biggest challenges of the project involved making it more ordinary.

This seems like a real departure from your previous film, the minimalist “The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales.” What got you interested in it?

It was by chance [because] at the very beginning of the process, I was only the character designer and little by little, I became the director. I really, really loved the manga and the process of the movie was actually quite fast. I’m a professional in 2D for many years now, I knew that it would be a really tough job to do in 2D, so I thought that maybe it could be in 3D and as my studio doesn’t do 3D, we asked other studios because it’s very complicated to draw characters that have a lot of tools for the climbing on them. They have ropes, they have ice axes, they have cords, and it’s realistic, so there are so many things [to plan for and design]. That’s why I thought about 3D, so we met 3D studios and quickly it [became apparent] 3D is really expensive if you want to do it well because there is a huge technical process behind this that makes it expensive. American studios like Pixar and DreamWorks reach a very high level of quality in CG, and we didn’t have this money, so we went back to 2D process [where] the problems were exactly the same, but I knew how to solve it.

[Still] the two movies are totally different. “The Big Bad Fox” is a a slapstick comedy, so the main goal is to make the audience laugh, which is really difficult actually, and it’s three little stories. And “Summit of the Gods” is an entire story and it’s addressed to a more adult audience, so it was really interesting because in animation, we’re used to talk to the kids, so the way to think of the narration is totally different and you don’t ask yourself the same questions and you don’t use the same ways to touch the audience.

When the film is steeped in Japanese culture and you’re coming to it as a Frenchman, did you do much to immerse yourself in order to bring it to life?

Yes, both in Japanese culture and in mountain culture because I did not know anything —  actually, this is not exact because as I’ve worked in animation for many years now, if you work in animation, it’s a given you know a little bit about Japan. I have seen many anime series when I was young, and I’ve read many novels of Japanese authors, so I know a little bit of culture that allows me to avoid the big mistakes on the cultural side. However, it was not enough, so I had to ask consultants because in Japan, for example, the hierarchical society is very different — between young and old and between the sexes and other things like that, and the Shintoist [religious] side of their culture is really important, and how the people are connected to nature. It’s really specific and when you talk about the subtext, it’s really important that you treat it well.

A friend of mine from Japan told us a lot about all the details [like for example] how you must not put your shoes on the floor – definitely not. [laughs] One time she came in the studio and saw one background we were working on and she saw the shoes on the characters [that] we put close to the door, on the side, and she said, “Oh gosh, never do this in Japan!” [laughs]

Among many other things, something you get so right was how you use light – the scene with Habu on the overpass and showing the loneliness of the city as cars pass by. What was it like to figure out?

The light is very important in the movie because I wanted to reach something very cinematic, but our main influences were not in animation, but more in [live-action] cinema and photography, so the light is one of the tools that we can use to make it more realistic. We use also used focal effects, like [sometimes going] out of focus and also lights and color, which are both sides of the same thing — we tried to create a [strong] mood for each sequence, and we did a color script, we worked a lot on [during] the preproduction. [where] we paid a lot of attention to [setting] the right ambiance, atmosphere.

In the climbing scenes, you seem to take advantage of being able to place the camera anywhere. What was it like bringing audiences into that environment?

Actually, we cannot place the camera everywhere we can’t move it as well as [a live-action film]. For example, in many documentaries, you can see a lot of drone view or elliptical view that turns around the mountain, and this is very impressive, but since we are in 2D, we cannot do this, so we have to find some other ways to give a strong impression. There is no rule for this [in animation], so you have to look for it and if there is a rule, it is to know what you want to give as an impression to the audience and to use your tool in this way. So if [a scene] is quiet, a camera has to be quiet. If you want to show the scale [such as a scene with] a small character in a big mountain, you have to use a large shot and when there is an avalanche, the camera is moving. So there is not one rule. There is an adapted solution to what you want to say.

Was there a particularly tricky sequence to figure out?

At the beginning, I thought the most difficult scenes would be the ones about mountaineering because of the tools [hanging off the characters I mentioned before]. But it happens that [while] that’s quite a tough job to do, it takes time, but it is not difficult in itself. On the other side, all the dialogue scenes — the quiet and simple scenes where you have to find meaning, this is really difficult because the animation has to be more well-animated and I love to find the right acting for the characters, so we worked a lot on this sense and what the characters have to do exactly and what they should not too. You have to be very careful to what you do because if it’s not exactly right, it’s totally wrong.

“Summit of the Gods” opens theatrically on November 26th and will start streaming on Netflix on November 30th.