Last month, Mindy Kaling and Justin Noble’s The Sex Lives of College Girls premiered on HBO Max. The show follows four friends and roommates – Kimberly, Bela, Whitney, and Leighton – as they begin their journey at New England Essex College. Throughout, they balance personal, social, and academic hurdles.
Recently, we had the opportunity to talk with Chuck Ozeas, the show’s LA based cinematographer. Ozeas has had a hand in several projects, including music videos for artists such as Smash Mouth, Nine Inch Nails, Dave Mathews, Carrie Underwood, Keith Urban, Dr. Dre, Lil Jon, Wyclef Jean, and several more. He’s DPed for multiple commercials spanning from car commercials to Nike to State Farm. Some of his narrative television projects include Netflix’s The Upshaws and Arrested Development.
Most recently, Ozeas DPed for The Sex Lives of College Girls. We chatted with him about creating the look of the series and more. Read on to see what Chuck had to say about the show!
Note: This interview was edited for clarity.
Nerds & Beyond: So, this is for Nerds & Beyond, we’re a pop culture news website…We’ve been recapping the show, actually. We really love it over here.
Chuck Ozeas: Did you hear the big news?
Nerds & Beyond: Yeah, I just saw like 10 minutes ago! Congratulations! That’s really great. It’s well deserved. What does it feel like to you know you’ll be able to get to do this for another season?
Chuck Ozeas: It’s so exciting. I was just texting with Justin Noble, the showrunner. I just can’t wait to expand upon what we’ve already kind of established. The characters have already grown so much in the first pre-Thanksgiving first year of college. It seems like there’s so many places we can go with it next, and I’m really excited.
Nerds & Beyond: Can you tell us a little bit about your background and what pushed you to pursue cinematography?
Chuck Ozeas: I grew up in Pittsburgh, and I was a child actor and did everything you can do in Pittsburgh – which, you know, Pittsburgh Opera Chorus and everything else that was professional companies – but also Mister Rogers’ [Neighborhood] shot in Pittsburgh, so I was on Mister Rogers’ a lot. Yeah, kind of funny growing up, but I got cast in their Christmas special, which was shot in Los Angeles. So, they flew me out to Los Angeles, and I think I got bit by the filmmaking bug pretty quickly.
In addition to that, I always had a camera in my hands growing up. Somebody gave me a camera when I was very young, whether it was a still camera or the Super 8 camera. It’s funny when you look back at pictures of me from the age of eight on, I’m literally always the one with the camera in my hand. So, somehow, those two things came together, you know, the acting and the photography. And kind of late in high school, it’s funny. I remember the moment that was sitting on the couch watching Sophie’s Choice, the movie, and funny enough it was on HBO [laughs] randomly – the only movie station at the time – and it was shot by Néstor Almendros, who’s the master of cinematography. It was the first time watching images in a movie that I thought to myself, “Wow, this is beautiful,” you know. And the first time I thought this must be someone’s job to do this, to be the photographer that does this, and I really want to do that job. So, I started researching film schools, etc., etc., and ended up at USC film school.
Nerds & Beyond: What initially drew you to The Sex Lives of College Girls? How did you come about working on this show?
Chuck Ozeas: Well, I’d been friends with Rick Page, the first DP, for several years. I met him maybe three years before. I was shooting kind of a large, effects heavy spot for Brooklyn Nine-Nine, a really, really funny spot with Andy [Samberg] jumping off an exploding roof, and this whole thing. It was really fun, and it was outside the show, so I was shooting it instead of the show. But I met him there and he was only able to stay for the first four episodes [of Sex Lives] because he was leaving to finish Brooklyn, and he brought me into meet Justin [Noble], and we hit it off right away. I feel so lucky to work with him, because I was amazed by his dedication, and his attention to detail on set is incredible. Everyone’s amazed at the stamina that he’s able to bring all his great ideas to the screen.
Nerds & Beyond: Going off of that, since he [Rick Page] did set the initial aesthetic, how did you go about settling one that you wanted to maintain throughout the show?
Chuck Ozeas: In general, I always like things to look as natural as possible, and you can mix in expressive lighting, I think, when it’s appropriate. But I thought it was very important for this to feel very natural, and when I first went to the stages at Warner Brothers, that’s the first thing I was impressed with. The sets were amazing. They’re designed and built by Susie Mancini, who was our production designer, and just some amazing canvas to work with when I got there. But in general, I wanted to shoot as naturally as possible, and it’s kind of how I’ve always liked to work, anyway. I kind of think to myself, when I go into any set or any location, just where would the light naturally be coming from, and how can you enhance that, you know. Again it doesn’t mean that at times you want to be a little bit more expressive with it, but as long as it makes sense with the scene, that’s kind of how I like to work.
Nerds & Beyond: Would you say you have sort of that same process working with multiple directors as well, or did that collaboration change a little bit when you’re working with different directors versus another DP?
Chuck Ozeas: As far as working with different directors, I grew up shooting music videos and commercials and worked with a different director every week, which is great training, because every director wants you to work in a different way. Some directors are very story-based and literally leave every decision to you. Where is the camera going, what’s the lighting doing, everything. Whereas some directors are very specific, some directors are very techy and like to say, “Yeah, you know, this feels more like a 65mm versus a 40mm close up.” Like, great, you know. I love the collaboration, and I think it’s important – at least for me and how I work – not to have a big ego. I like to be able to get into the director’s head quickly and understand how they like to work, and then bring my own work in collaboration with that as far as staying staying true to the look of the show. Again, the naturalism. But as far as the collaboration with the director, I think that that’s how I like to work.
Nerds & Beyond: I think arguably one of the most important aspects of this show is being able to capture college life in general, and I think that’s something that you really nail. Can you talk a little bit about how you really enhance that setting for viewers?
Chuck Ozeas: I think as far as – you know, it’s interesting. I think it goes back to the naturalism, because you want to put people in the heads of the four main actresses, right, and make the viewers identify with them. And if it feels very natural, if it feels like something that people remember from college, and they could feel very familiar to people, I think people will connect with the show that much more quickly. I feel like we really nailed that, too.
Nerds & Beyond: Going off of that, I also really love how each of these girls get their own individual scenes, and they do feel very personal. How did your approach change when lighting and framing those scenes versus scenes with two or more of the girls?
Chuck Ozeas: I think like everything it begins with the script, whether the scene is a comedic scene or whether the scene is more of a dramatic scene. It seems that the comedic scenes are more of the group scenes, and those are the scenes that maybe I’ll light a little bit more broadly, and maybe a little more soft, a little bit brighter. Then also with the with lensing you want to shoot a little bit deeper so that you’re seeing people in the background, their reaction. You want to see what the reaction to the comedy is, ‘cause the timing is so important. But then, at the same time, when you go to the dramatic scenes, it’s kind of the opposite with everything. You can be a little more expressive with the lighting. You can let things fall into shadow. Then I tried to shoot really shallow focus wise. We had T1.4 lenses and we’d shoot mostly around there in dramatic scenes. And again, I think that helps put people in the head of the actress and makes people identify better with the actress or whatever the scene is. But just a special shout-out to our four first ACs. They’re very, very talented and never complained about the 1.4s. [laughs] Yen [Nguyen], Dustin [Miller], and Tom [Gleason]. They were all amazing.
Nerds & Beyond: What were some of your favorite scenes to create and film? Do you have any shots or scenes that you’re especially proud of?
Chuck Ozeas: I think the location we shot in in New York – Vassar College for all the exteriors and some of the interiors, as well. All of that stuff I love, because the campus is so beautiful: the old stone buildings, the hundred-year-old trees. Everything was just really great canvas to work with. And the trees, as an aside, many of them were painted to look like Fall. We were shooting there in mid-summer. And especially the episodes that are [came out December 9], they painted more and more of the trees to look more and more like Fall. So, any of the bright red trees you see the background are all painted in post. So, yeah, shooting in June in upstate New York. But as far as the scenes here, faking the Universal Sheraton as a casino for the for the pilot episode I loved. I thought it looked beautiful. But at the same time, it was just funny, because so many of the guests of the hotel would walk through and think it was actually a casino.
But as far as some of the more dramatic scenes, it’s where I got to be more a little more expressive with the lighting. Let’s see, there was Kim and Nico’s first kiss in the basement. That was a favorite. Leighton coming out to Alicia at the party was great. And then there’s another scene [that came out December 9], where Kim and Leighton finally really connect as roommates. It’s a really, really nice scene, and again, a little bit more expressive lighting. But I really enjoyed shooting that.
Nerds & Beyond: In general, what was your experience like working on this show?
Chuck Ozeas: I loved it. It was so exciting. I loved going to work every day, you know. I’ve always enjoyed Mindy Kaling’s comedy, and I just gained even more respect for her work behind the scenes, just watching how she rewrote things, and how she handled everything. And it really goes double for our showrunner, Justin Noble. And I mentioned his attention to detail and stamina earlier. It’s really impressive.
Oh, I did wanna mention the four girls though, too. It’s so refreshing to work with them, four relatively new actresses – Pauline [Chalamet], Alyah [Chanelle Scott], Amrit [Kaur], and Reneé [Rapp]. They really had very little TV experience, and I think they all did such a great job. I’m really looking forward to seeing them again now that we got renewed…because I’m sure just the amount of press and the amount everything that they’ve been going through in the last couple months must’ve been pretty eye opening.
Nerds & Beyond: What are you most proud of with this show?
Chuck Ozeas: Well, I guess for myself I am proud of the look. I think just nailing that naturalism and with touches of the expressive lighting punching up dramatic scenes was really rewarding. Filmmaking and TV specifically is pretty exhausting, but when you’re able to do good work and feel good about your work, it really does keep you going, you know. It keeps you going after six-day work weeks, and in New York, and heat. I was really, really happy with it in the end. And the rest of the crew. I just feel so appreciative of everyone’s hard work. I’m certainly not the only person working hard, and a lot of people are working physically a lot harder than me, but I really think everyone brought their A-game every day. And just a special shout-out to the crew. Our camera team was led by John Purdy, our gaffer Carlos Torres, key grip Jack Nagel. All of their crews were incredibly supportive and good-natured and hardworking.
Nerds & Beyond: That’s everything I have for you. Did you have anything else that you wanted to add?
Chuck Ozeas: No, that’s it. I’m currently shooting a show for Netflix called The Upshaws with Wanda Sykes and Mike Epps and Kim Fields, who’s awesome as well. But I’m really looking forward to this news about College Girls coming back.
Thank you to Chuck for taking time to talk with us! Find more of his work on his website and follow him on Instagram. All episodes of The Sex Lives of College Girls are streaming now on HBO Max. Find our recaps and other coverage here. Stay tuned for more season 2 news!