Nick (16) and Charlie (15) sit next to each other on the couch and watch a movie. Charlie has fallen asleep, arm outstretched, palm up.
Nick (Kit Connor) stares at a sleeping Charlie (Joe Locke) — first with tenderness, then with trepidation. His eyes dart down to Charlie’s hand and the tension is palpable.
When he reaches out and hovers his hand over Charlie’s, sparks literally fly across the screen. Tiny animated stars and lightning bolts erupt with the silent sound of fireworks. A warm yellow glow envelops the space between the boys’ palms.
This moment comes towards the end of the second episode – aptly titled “Crush” – of “Heartstopper”, the rich coming-of-age love story that recently appeared on Netflix.
“Heartstopper” has enjoyed one unlikely success after another since it began in 2016, as a black and white webcomic from Alice Oseman. The comic’s reception, which has been viewed more than 52 million times, inspired Oseman to crowdfund and self-publish a graphic novel “Heartstopper” in 2018, which caught the attention of a publisher in 2019. book have followed, together sold over a million copies. The live-action adaptation has remained one of Netflix’s most-watched English-language shows since its premiere in late April.
So the story is clearly a hit. But what’s most striking about the Netflix series, which was created and written by Oseman, is how faithfully it mimics the comic on the screen, with actors closely resembling the main characters and many shots that match the images from the source material. .
The most notable element is the integration of 2D animation. The moments are sparse and subtle – snow falling around Nick and Charlie or leaves swirling around friends, a recurring image in the comic. But based on the copious feedback online, viewers noticed and approved† (Netflix declined to say whether it planned to renew the show for another season.)
“We just thought it would add something like a little magic to the show — because it’s called ‘Heartstopper’ for a reason,” Oseman said in a video interview from Kent, England, where she grew up. “It’s all about those little moments in a relationship where your heart is beating and your feelings are so big.”
Now 27, Oseman started writing Nick and Charlie as characters when she was 17, in her first novel, ‘Solitaire’. Her writing style, she said, has been heavily influenced by the fact that she started writing when she was the same age as her characters.
“Now, as an adult writing teens, the most important thing for me is to always treat teen characters like grown-ups and never try to write them down, pretend you’re a teenager,” Oseman said. “Because teenagers don’t feel like teenagers; teenagers are the oldest they have ever been.”
Nick and Charlie, side characters in “Solitaire,” were Oseman’s first queer characters — she wrote them at a time, she said, when she didn’t know she was queer herself. They marked the beginning of her journey into writing queer fiction.
Her favorite scene from the webcomic is Nick and Charlie’s first kiss, which was surreal to watch turn into television, she said. It felt like someone had plucked it out of her head and dropped it into the real world.
“As a director, that’s my job: I imagine what it’s going to look like,” says Euros Lyn, who directed the entire series, in a video interview from Wales. “So I had all these images in my head, and then I went to the graphic novel and realized they were the same.”
Lyn read the script first, before reading the graphic novel, and was amazed at how well Oseman had translated her own images into language. He was also enamored with the visual language itself: small drawings Oseman had created in the margins of the scripts that were eventually adapted into some of the show’s graphic embellishments.
“When everyone read the scripts with these doodles on the side, it was so magical that we said, ‘Well, this has to be on the screen,’” Lyn said. “It heightens the emotion and intensity of those moments, gives them a different quality and tells something that goes on in the minds of the characters.”
However, how the team uses animation evolves throughout the show. At the end of the first episode, Nick’s mother, Sarah (Olivia Colman), drives him home from rugby practice. As Nick stares out the window, thinking of Charlie, a simple pair of animated seagulls are reflected in the car window, another graphic novel motif. Towards the end of the fifth episode, viewers see an intricate pair of lovebirds circling and flying towards the camera. (Anna Peronetto, the animator, remembers looking out her window and analyzing the green parakeets in London to study how they moved.)
“There were some keyframes that we had to transcribe very carefully so that the mise-en-scene would be as accurate as possible,” Lyn said. “Not only was the production design true to the graphic novel, but the costumes were too — their tone was as true to the graphic novel as possible.”
The webcomic and graphic novel were both drawn in black and white, so Lyn and his team had to come up with a color palette and lighting style to match the story. The casting process was also a challenge: they had to find actors who not only resembled the characters, but who could also channel their emotions.
Finding an animator was easier. Peronetto was a devoted fan of the “Heartstopper” comic, an obsession she shared with her sisters. It was her older sister who introduced Peronetto to the graphic novels, and her twin sister was the one who came across Oseman’s Instagram post looking for a 2D animator.
“Something that hasn’t been emphasized enough with this project is that it has been very inclusive not only in the cast choices, but also in the team,” Peronetto wrote in an email. “I found it refreshing to be surrounded by many talented women and people from the LGBTQIA+ community at all stages of production.”
Peronetto usually watched an early draft of each episode and then discussed with Lyn and Sofie Alonzi, the film editor, which animations would fit. She was free to come up with creative solutions based on the storyboards – she knew by then what elements and tone a scene needed. And she always had her copy of the graphic novel on hand.
“When working on new elements, the most important thing was to keep the emotions right, and it was clear to me what the animated scenes were supposed to make the audience feel,” Peronetto said. “I was just trying to get the same feeling I had reading ‘Heartstopper’.”