When talking to production professionals like DP Carissa Dorson, I’ve found time and time again that there are certain topics such as creativity, work ethic, technical knowledge, and joy, that make their way into almost every conversation. We touched on all of those topics with Carissa as well as some background as we pulled back the curtain on this very talented and hardworking DP.
We caught up with Carissa as she was still immersed in production with A Little Late with Lilly Singh, currently airing on NBC.
PH: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got interested in the art of film and photography?
Carissa Dorson: I never thought I would become a visual artist. I grew up in Silver Spring, Maryland with a very technologically-minded family. I was lucky that my mom, a respected computer scientist, encouraged me to reach for anything I wanted to do, as long as I worked really hard at it. I originally wanted to be an editor, but going to film school at Florida State University introduced me to working on set for the first time, which I ended up liking better than editing. For some reason, telling a story with the camera came naturally to me.
I moved to Los Angeles in 2012 to pursue a career as a cinematographer, and started getting work through CollegeHumor and the UCB theater. I fell in love with shooting comedy, among other genres. I learned that comedy is so relatable, and can be a way to explore hard truths and what it means to be human. Whether it’s through still photography or cinema, I love telling stories that are touching and relatable.
PH: You have worked on a lot of different types of very interesting visual projects including Lilly Singh. Why that show? What would you say draws you to take on a project?
Carissa Dorson: A Little Late with Lilly Singh is no typical late night show. We shoot in a house instead of a studio with a desk. Lilly is constantly playing multiple characters in sketches, which allows me to bring in my cinematic sensibilities. The show feels refreshing and it matches Lilly’s personality.
I take on projects when I believe in the talent behind them. Lilly has such a strong voice and point of view, I knew right away that I wanted to be a part of her show. She and I have similar mindsets, both coming from internet comedy, and it felt like the perfect fit. I love when someone’s comedy comes from such a pure place, you can’t help but see yourself in them. That type of connection makes me say yes in a heartbeat.
PH: These might be trick questions. How would you say people would describe your style as a DP? How do you describe yourself? Do you have someone you style your work after?
Carissa Dorson: As a cinematographer, I prioritize story over anything else. The style of a project is dictated by how the director and I interpret the script. When it comes to comedy, I try to shoot in a way that helps the funny shine through. Sometimes that means going for a natural style that doesn’t call attention to itself. Sometimes it means embodying a whole other genre like horror or action, as a parody.
In my personal photography, I am inspired by light and simple compositions that draw the eye. I love photographers that tell stories through their work, like Todd Hido and Sally Mann.
PH: Bring us back to your first big project as DP. What was going through your head?
Carissa Dorson: My first paid project as a cinematographer was at CollegeHumor. I was grateful to be given the opportunity, but I was also nervous and felt like an impostor. There was that voice in the back of my head telling me that I was undeserving and I didn’t belong. But people trusted me to do the job for a reason. I was able to rely on what I learned in film school to get the job done. Going to film school at Florida State also provided me with an alumni network of crew in LA. I keep those crew members close to this day, and they are a great support system. However, I still get nervous before most projects!
PH: Let’s switch gears for a minute. Why the mix of Panasonic cameras on Lilly Singh? Was that your call? Was it hard to get that mix of cameras to match? (I’ve shot the EVA-1, but never tried to match it up.)
Carissa Dorson: On A Little Late, we have three EVA1 cameras and three GH5 cameras (two of which are the newer GH5-S). Before we started, I shot tests with both cameras and found picture profiles that matched very closely. I’ve been using Panasonic’s Lumix and cinema cameras for years now, and find them to be very reliable. On A Little Late with Lilly Singh, I decided to use a mix of these cameras for many reasons. First of all, the EVA1 is such a small cinema camera, but it delivers images that look great on any professional set. I own two EVA1’s and have used them on a variety of jobs from no-budget short films, to documentaries, to big commercials. It helps that they are smaller in size, because we have a very small crew. The operators (including myself) are able to be self-sufficient with them. Regarding the GH5 cameras, they are each used for very specific purposes. One is for behind-the-scenes, one is on a Ronin-S gimbal, and one is Lilly’s “rant” camera, to which she delivers monologues in a room by herself. I’m always impressed by the cinema-quality video I get from Lumix cameras, while at the same time making use of their small size. These cameras help us bring Lilly’s YouTube style into the show, and it adds a fresh perspective.
PH: I noticed you also used Canon lenses on Lilly Singh. Was that with all of the cameras?
Carissa Dorson: We use Canon 17-120mm CN-E zooms on our two main EVA1 cameras. The third EVA1, which is normally used for wide shots, has a 24-70mm Canon L-series zoom. All the GH5 cameras have Lumix 12-35mm zooms. We utilize the autofocus setting on our gimbal camera and “rant” camera.
PH: Was lighting the house hard? Did you want more of the “YouTube” look or more polish? Did you decide to have different lighting setups out of necessity or more of an artistic choice?
Carissa Dorson: The look of the show is a mix of polished and intentionally messy. Lilly really wants to bring the viewers into her world, and that’s why so much behind-the-scenes footage goes into the show. Those are some of the most fun moments, when all the gear and crew is visible in the background.
I approached lighting the house like I would any other project. At first, I worked with Lilly and our production designer, Bonnie Bacevich, to establish which “sets” would be staying the same for the run of the show. For example, we come to the living room every episode, where Lilly interviews her guests. That room has lights rigged to the ceiling that stay there for the run of the show. Then we have a few rooms that are constantly being designed into something different, so the lighting changes a lot. We have more creative freedom in those cases. For example, we turned one of our blank white-walled rooms into a horror torture dungeon and lit it dramatically for one sketch.
PH: Can you tell me about the crew on the show?
Carissa Dorson: I was able to form an awesome camera and lighting team, most of whom I’ve worked with for years. Will Sampson and Chris Oeurn are my camera operators (Chris also shoots the behind-the-scenes). Iliana Ipes is the AC/media manager, and she will be moving up to operate in April. Will and Iliana are both fellow FSU alumni.
Lighting and grip team consists of Joe Baltazar as gaffer and Rene Yescas as key grip, with Katie Blanch and Kevin Scott as Swings.
PH: Was the on set COVID protocol really difficult? Or was it more of a “hey we just gotta deal” for you?
Carissa Dorson: I’m a “hey, we just gotta deal” type of person. The biggest challenge of COVID protocols is we are limited to a certain amount of crew in a room. That can slow us down by forcing us to set up in shifts. We shoot in some rooms that only allow four people. So that can mean two actors, a camera operator, a sound mixer, and that’s it. Other than that, we get used to the PPE and testing. It’s the new normal!
PH: March was Women’s History Month. What would you tell a young woman or any young person who is thinking of venturing into this competitive workplace?
Carissa Dorson: Success in this industry has just as much to do with attitude and work ethic as it does talent. Maybe even more. If you work hard and show excitement for the job at the bottom of the totem pole, you’ll rise quickly. But it does take patience, because working your way up in the film industry is a long-term commitment. It’s essential to network and form relationships. Tell people what you want to be doing. Check back in with them as time passes, and never forget to thank them for opportunities. Make a website where people can find you and look at your work. If you don’t have work yet, grab a DSLR and find a way to shoot a reel for yourself. If you say you are a cinematographer, then you are a cinematographer.
PH: Was it hard doing a show in the confined space of a house or did shooting there kind of fit in? Would you rather be in a studio, on location or does it really matter?
Carissa Dorson: I am accustomed to shooting on-location, so shooting in a house is comfortable for me. A studio does have its perks though. Tight spaces and Covid protocols are definitely the biggest challenge, but the upside is you can feel the vibe of a real house on the show.
PH: Is there a crossover between your still work and your television work?
Carissa Dorson: Still photography definitely informs my cinematography, and it was helpful early on when I was figuring out my personal style–I was able to experiment on my own and learn what I liked visually. Now, still photography continues to be a personal creative outlet that is separate from work.
However, there is one specific crossover. I have a photo series called “Funny People, Serious Photos,” where I photograph comedians who I’ve worked with over the years. I take their portraits in their homes, and I get quotes from them about how they turn dark things like fear and anxiety into comedy.
PH: Can you tell us what you are working on now and what you see for work the rest of 2021?
Carissa Dorson: I am still working on this season of A Little Late with Lilly Singh through May. I also just published a photography book called Conversations with Dad, with photographs by me and my Dad. It can be purchased through my website: www.carissadorson.com.
We’ll see what the rest of the year has to bring, but I plan on doing more work with Lilly Singh!
PH: Anything I missed or that you would want to add?
Carissa Dorson: I’ll add that Lilly is the director and executive producer of the show in addition to being on camera talent. She is so involved in every part of the process, and really cares about her crew. Her long-time editor, Taylor Brooks, acts as our 1AD and is also a very hard-working essential part of the show. We make a great team and I feel so blessed to be working with them.