Following your Heart

Following your Heart

By Michael Pickard
September 13, 2023

Job Description

The second season of Netflix teen drama Heartstopper marked the first major television project for cinematographer Simona Susnea. She tells DQ about evolving the show’s eye-catching visual style, filming in Paris and why working in TV is crazy.

Memes, clips, reaction videos, fan art. Since the launch of Netflix teen drama Heartstopper in April 2022, and even before it, social media has been awash with adoration for the series, which is based on Alice Oseman’s web comics and graphic novels.

But when cinematographer Simona Susnea came to join the crew of the show’s second season, she made a point of staying away from the comments and critiques online.

“I really didn’t want to go into the hype of the show because that changes your perception about what you’re doing,” she tells DQ. “When I was working with the whole team, we just decided collectively that we’re going to do the best work we can, make the best show we can, and that hopefully people respond well to it.

“The whole hype around it is amazing and it’s also for a good reason, so that makes me very happy. But I also didn’t want to get sucked into that, because I feel like can you lose your head a little bit, and that’s dangerous.”

Described as a coming-of-age romantic comedy-drama, the acclaimed series introduces big-hearted Charlie (Joe Locke) and rugby star Nick (Kit Connor), who meet at school and discover their unlikely friendship is blossoming into an unexpected romance – one that is supported by their group of friends as they embark upon a journey of self-discovery and acceptance.

Simona Susnea at the base of the Eiffel Tower (photo: Chris Dumont)

Season two, which dropped on Netflix last month, expands its focus to explore how Nick and Charlie are navigating their new relationship as Tara (Corinna Brown) and Darcy (Kizzy Edgell) face unforeseen challenges together and Tao (William Gao) and Elle (Yasmin Finney) work out if they can be more than just friends, all while they tackle end-of-year exams, a trip to Paris and the school prom.

Produced by See Saw Films, the show marks Susnea’s first major TV role, having previously worked on films such as Sweet Sue and Up on the Roof, plus documentaries like Audrey and Charlie Mackesy: The Boy, The Mole, The Fox, The Horse & Me.

It’s also the project she says has led her to “fully embrace” television – a medium where she had previously wondered whether it was possible to do good work or if the mechanics of a series’ packed shooting schedule would just swallow her up.

However, Susnea jumped at the chance to work on Heartstopper, not only because she loved the script, but also because it offered her opportunity to work with director Euros Lyn and to bring her own ideas to the series, rather than simply repeating S1’s winning formula.

“It’s not really a continuation of season one in that it should look the same,” she explains. “They wanted a whole different feeling. Each season [of the show] also happens in different seasons, so they had winter and spring in season one and we only had summer in season two.

“Obviously the relationship between Charlie and Nick was also changing, and there were some mental health issues there that were talked about, so it was a whole different story that I could actually pitch ideas for.”

Oseman’s graphic novel was a strong source of inspiration, with numerous scenes in the series recreating specific frames from the book – and complemented by the writer’s own animations that are used to enhance the emotion of particular moments. Susnea also spoke to S1 cinematographer Diana Olifirova about working on the show and, from those conversations, she and Lyn worked out what they would keep and how the series would evolve over S2.

“There were things we kept from season one where I felt like the [visual] language was really suitable, and where I took it one step further and brought more developing shots into the language, more dolly shots and some static moments,” she says. “We kept that kind of graphic novel language of using top shots or more angular shots, and I went for a little bit more symmetry. I chose different lenses. There was a lot that translated and a lot that came through season one, but it was transformed for the season two story.”

The second season of Heartstopper sees the characters visit Paris on a school trip

Notably, a large part of the story is set in Paris, as Nick, Charlie and their friends embark on a school trip to the French capital and take in such sights as the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre and Sacré-Cœur.

“It’s surreal to shoot in the Louvre when it’s absolutely closed, to be the only people there. It was really amazing,” Susnea says. “We got access to incredible galleries, so there was so much careful planning and thought behind how we shot those scenes, and how we referenced the novel. It was like doing two shows in one, because the time it took to prep the Paris shoot was almost equal to the UK part.”

Some of that prep work included trying to find ways to hold on to the feeling of summer – when the story takes place – despite filming in early October. But while the show features plenty of shots of the cast walking the streets of Paris, not everything set in the city was filmed there.

“We brought a lot of elements of Paris into our London set builds, where the art department built the hotel rooms,” Susnea reveals. “The interior of the restaurant where the kids have dinner in Paris was also an interior in London. So little bits like that we could just cheat with because there was literally no time, and I think we were really successful because I don’t think you can see the joins.

“We filmed a large section of the Louvre, quite a lot of it, but there are two places in the Louvre that we shot in London in the National Gallery and the Royal Academy of Arts, and then we filmed in the Dulwich Picture Gallery. We really worked hard to find those locations in the UK to make it feel seamless.”

Access to the real locations came with some limitations, however, as Susnea wasn’t able to take a full complement of crew with her into the Louvre – home to Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. That meant she would have to light certain scenes herself, her grip also worked as the gaffer, access to the hair and make-up and costume teams was limited – and Lyn even appeared on camera as a museum guard.

The shoot took in numerous real locations in the French capital

Susnea also mapped out the movement of the sun across the venue so they could plan which scenes to shoot at certain times of the day.

“These were the ideas we had to work with, so I could actually go in there and shoot with hardly any lighting,” she says. “The results are wonderful. For me, those logistical challenges are equally enjoyable as the creative challenges, and I feel like they go hand in hand.”

Scenes were filmed in the Louvre with a Steadicam operator, coupled up with Susnea’s own use of a handheld camera, and this approach was used repeatedly across the series. The handheld camera, Susnea says, gives the impression of following the characters through their surroundings and creating a physical intimacy with them – a key consideration for a show about love and relationships.

“I felt like handheld really translated that, and I use it a lot when the story is right,” she says. “It was important to be with them at all times and to infuse that kind of emotion and those feelings into the actual shots and translate those feelings of love to the audience.”

At other times, a static camera or Dolly would be used where movement was not required or the characters themselves were still. Crane shots were also incorporated.

“With Heartstopper, I felt like season one existed as its own entity. So when I went for my interview with Euros, I really pitched it as though we were starting over almost, without forgetting about season one in terms of the handheld language that worked really well,” Susnea says. “My style of handheld is very different. It’s just more understated, more controlled, and I think that translated well. But it was just my own interpretation of the story. I felt like it needed to go deeper inside the characters.”

Susnea was given the freedom to bring her own style to S2

Those conversations always put Charlie at the forefront of a story in which he faces numerous mental health challenges on top of his burgeoning relationship with Nick.

“I feel like the duality of a teenager coming out and his problems with mental health inspired me to find a lot of different tools to tell his story,” Susnea says. “I didn’t disregard season one, but I really wanted to feel like we were setting up the look of a new show. I changed a lot. I made my own lot. I brought in two different sets of lenses, and then the lighting was changed to a degree because it happens [naturally] in the summer, so my colour temperatures and my filters were different.”

Susnea’s approach to her work on Heartstopper ultimately reflected the evolution of the story and the characters, an evolution of something familiar.

“If I’m doing like a show like [Apple TV+ drama] Severance, you can’t really go about changing the look of it,” she notes. “You can bring elements to it, but you can’t go a million miles away. Then it would be a whole different story. But I felt like this was just such a fresh start, particularly because it’s summer and they go to Paris. I took a lot of inspiration from Paris’s feeling as a city.”

Another key scene takes place in the season finale when Nick, Charlie & co head to their school prom.

“That took a lot of work,” Susnea says. “I think I had nearly 100 lights in that place. It was really important to bring a strong infusion of colour at the end of the show because I felt like, first of all, it reflects the community and the story needed it. It’s a teenage prom so it was an amazing opportunity for me to bring my passion for colour and lighting to the show and try to create such an eclectic look.

The prom scene in the season finale ‘took a lot of work’

“It was also quite a large-scale thing to prepare in such a short time, because the scripts came in towards the end of the shoot. The art department had a pretty big idea of what they wanted to do, and it was just amazing teamwork to make that happen. It was a lot of fun to do.”

Susnea is now plotting her next moves in television – but her takeaway from working on Heartstopper is that “TV is crazy.”

“It’s about the script, the director and the actors; and it’s about, do you love the project or not?” she says. “Because if you do, you’re fully going to embrace the craziness of the schedule. I knew it before, but preparation is just so key.

“I’ve been so privileged to work with wonderful people, and also the show has all the elements I love. It’s driven by the characters, it’s a story I care about and it’s a story that put something positive in the world. I also discovered that I’m really good at it and I could cope with the scale in a really positive way, with a lot of work. It was a good experience for me and I really want to do more television in the future.”

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