‘The Summit of the Gods’ Takes 2D Animation to New Heights

The Summit of the Gods
©Julianne Films/Folivari/Mélusine Productions

In one extract from the Annecy online presentation of banner French production “The Summit of the Gods,” a climber steels himself to jump over a huge, gaping, seemingly bottomless crevasse, its ice walls tinged a lethal dark blue – cold that will kill you quickly.

Running at the crevasse, the climber flings himself into the air. Cut to a shot of his landing on the snow on the other side, gasping in relief.

This is, of course, the stuff of a live action film. Yet “The Summit of the Gods” is animation, and mostly 2D animation at that.

“Animation can talk about any subject but differently from live action,” says Folivari’s Didier Brunner, one of its producers. Sold by Wild Bunch, and produced by Jean-Charles Ostorero’s Julianne Films, Didier and Damien Brunner’s Folivari and Stéphane Roélants’ Melusine Productions, “The Summit of the Gods” bears him out.

The story, in its bare bones, is relatively straightforward, says the film’s director, Patrice Imbert, in a presentation released online Monday by Annecy as the French animation festival kicked into gear.

A young Japanese photo journalist, Fukamachi, finds a camera that could change the history of mountaineering. It leads him to a legendary climber, Habu Jouji, who persuades Fukamachi to accompany him on his almost certainly suicidal solo attempt on the South West face of Everest. Gradually, the young man begins to fall under the mountains’ spell, and share Habu’s obsession.

“The Summit of the Gods” is “a big adventure, a tale about man’s relation to nature, and his own limits, pushed to folly,” says Didier Brunner.

Making “The Summit of the Gods,” the producers faced a challenge almost as daunting as Habu’s.

The feature adapts a manga series based on a 1998 novel by Baku Yumemakura and illustrated by Jiro Taniguchi.

Taniguchi’s style was “close to European graphic novels, they fascinated and inspired him deeply, especially the Belgian clear-cut line,” Brunner says in the online presentation.

That said, Taniguchi was a revered figure, described by Guillermo del Toro when he died in 2017 as “a manga poet. The Kieslowski of the page.” Each part of “The Summit of the Gods’” five-volume manga series runs to over 200 pages. Drawn in B & W, Taniguchi illustrates the series with a “highly-stylized realism, like fine-tuned glasses viewing peaks,” says Pascal Gérard, the folds and intricate lines of mountain caught in astounding deep detail.

So adapting the manga, the animators faced a delicate balancing act. “We know we’ll have high-detail scenes,” designer Christian Desmares says in the presentation. But the animators focused on “purer, simpler designs so the animation will flow smoothly. Art and technical feasibility, they both matter in filmmaking. But animation mustn’t take 10 years,” Desires adds.

“The Summit of the Gods” is also a film. So it uses what Bertrand Piocelle in the unveil calls “movie-style framing.” The crevasse scene, nearly the only sustained sequence shown in color in the sneak peek, is shot from inside the crevasse as the climber hurls his body across the void, then via a reverse shot from the other side, a close-up of his ice axe encrusting itself in the icy snow, gripped by the mountaineer.

The animated feature is made in traditional 2D. “But we’re modern, so we tried out new techniques such as 3D line strokes mainly indoors,” says Piocelle. “We did most locations in very basic 3D, then over-drew for detail and identity, targeting the best of both worlds: 3D rigor and precision, charged with the perk and magic of 2D lines.”

Above all, “The Summit of the Gods” sets out to convey Habu’s joy – and fixation – with climbing.

“If we’d done ‘The Summit of the Gods’ as live action, we’d have pictures of a big and extraordinary mountain film. In animation, we’re designing the mountain landscape, giving it a graphic style to embody Habu’s inner landscape, what he’s feeling inside,” Didier Brunner told Variety before Annecy.

In one crucial scene, which can be seen in animatics,  a young Habu is seen sitting at a bus stop beside an old lady. The bus finally comes thundering to a halt between them and the spectator, screeching open its doors, pulls away – and Abu is still siting on the bench. He gets up, crosses the road and starts running towards the local hills and higher mountains as if he’s suffocating at such a low altitude, needs desperately to get higher.

The action has the sense of an epiphany. “The Summit of the Gods” contains scenes of cruel beauty: A shot down a huge interminable big mountain snow slope as two minute figures in the distance toil up it, bleak, barren, endless mountains filling the horizon beyond them.

A still in the Work in Progress documentary depicts a climber, most probably Habu as an adult, sitting on a rock way above a valley, which is engulfed in cloud, as the sun sets behind mountains in the distance, their details darkening to a simple black contour. There’s a sense that it’s at moments like this that Habu is at one with himself and the mountains that define him.

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The Summit of the Gods Annecy Festival