Carissa Dorson on ‘A Little Late with Lilly Singh’
First, it would be great to know more about you. How has your career as a cinematographer developed and how did you end up on television?
I have been shooting comedy ever since I moved to Los Angeles in 2012. My friends and I shot sketch comedy for fun in film school at Florida State University, and it continued when we moved to L.A. I was introduced to producers at CollegeHumor and began working for them as a camera assistant, until they trusted me enough to start shooting sketches for them. My career as a DP grew from there as I networked within the internet comedy world. I met a lot of producers and directors that I admired, and fostered relationships with them by shooting their passion projects. Years of doing this led me to where I am now, shooting A Little Late with Lilly Singh on NBC. I was recommended to Lilly when she was looking for a DP for her special, Sketchy Times with Lilly Singh in September 2020. We loved working together on that, and then she asked me to shoot Season 2 of her late night show.
However, you still work on lot in Short films. What media do you love the most? TV or Cinema?
It’s so hard to choose! I get a lot of personal fulfilment from telling a meaningful story through a narrative short or feature film. A TV show feels more like an ongoing conversation, which is really fun for me. I like to switch it up and work on a variety of projects.
How has the show evolved technologically over the seasons?
I joined the show for season 2, which is currently airing. It’s vastly different from season 1, which was a traditional talk show shot in a studio with broadcast cameras. We now shoot on-location at a house, and the show has a more casual vibe to fit Lilly’s personality. We utilize EVA1 and GH5 cameras and shoot 23.98 rather than the usual broadcast framerate, 29.97. The lighting is quite different too, since I love using big soft sources which are not traditional to late-night. The look depends on the scripts planned for each day, and some of them call for more heightened cinematic storytelling. But we prioritize comedy above everything else.
Because of Covid, all of our interviews are virtual this season, so that has presented another technical challenge. Our technical producer, Mike Hammeke, works his magic every day to make these Zoom interviews happen.
Usually, US TV talk shows are characterized by not being especially complex in terms of their photography. Nonetheless, ‘A Little Late with Lilly Singh’ has an interesting look, which captures both the naturalistic feel of a talk show and a beautiful photography. How did you develop this look?
When I started this job, I recognized that they wouldn’t have hired me if they wanted it to look like any other talk show. The look of the show was very much based on Lilly and what she does best, with YouTube as her background. We wanted half of the show to feel behind-the-scenes and candid, welcoming the viewers into her world. These are some of the funniest, most charming parts of the show! Another huge piece of the show is sketch comedy, which is what I know best. Lilly does a lot of character work, and we feature her playing multiple characters in sets that our art team is able to create in the production house. The look is always dictated by the script. For example, we filmed a Wizard of Oz-inspired sketch where Lilly finds herself in Emerald City and talks to the Wizard. That sketch was saturated with color and had a soft diffused look. Finally, we do a lot of interviews and segments in our main living room, where I worked with the production designer, Bonnie Bacevich, to create a colorful and laid-back vibe.
What are the main challenges of ‘A Little Late with Lilly Singh’?
We have a very fast-paced schedule, so I always have to form a plan to get efficient coverage. Covid safety protocols also slow things down because we can’t have too many people in the room when we are setting up and shooting. When Lilly is playing multiple characters in multiple scenes, it involves a lot of quick jumping around from place to place, which means that I have to keep track of lighting continuity. On top of that, we don’t have any color correction on the show because of the tight post turn-around, so finding the look in-camera is another fun challenge!
What were your main visual references for the show?
I take a lot of inspiration from Key & Peele, SNL Digital Shorts, and Inside Amy Schumer. Those shows really go for it when it comes to cinematically heightening their sketches, and I really admire that.
Could you tell us more about the cameras + lenses you chose for this project?
We shoot with three Panasonic EVA1 cameras and three Lumix GH5s cameras, all serving different purposes. Our main A and B EVA1 cameras are outfitted with Canon Cine 17-120 Servo Zooms, and the third EVA1 has a Canon L-series 24-70 zoom. We mainly use LUMIX G 12-35 Zooms on the GH5s cameras. One GH5 serves as our behind the scenes camera, one is on a Ronin-S Gimbal, and one is Lilly’s “rant” camera, to which Lilly delivers monologues in her “rant room.”
You chose to shoot with a LUMIX GH5S as your main camera rather than a cinema or broadcast camera (although you also use multiple AU-EVA1). Why did you choose this option? Do you think mirrorless cameras are going to be a standard in these types of tv formats in the future?
Going into the show, I knew we would need several cameras to accommodate all of the different types of segments we were shooting, and I knew I wanted them to be small in size. We’re a small crew that needs to move quickly, and the Panasonic EVA1 and GH5 cameras allow us to do that without compromising on image quality. I have seen mirrorless cameras like the GH5 used in film and TV more than once. It all depends on the needs of the project, but the GH5 is a great option for a B or C camera that needs to be smaller than the main cameras. Despite its size, I often can’t tell the difference in the image!
We’ve seen that you chose to capture Full HD, but isn’t true that industry standards are moving to 4K + HDR? Didn’t you think about opting for this format to extend its broadcast later on VOD platforms?
Yes, it does feel strange to go back to HD when 4K is more of a standard these days. The reality is that 1920×1080 is still the standard in late night, and it allows for an easier post turn-around for a show that airs four times a week. I’ve been pleased with how it looks, and think that dynamic range and color are ultimately more important than resolution.
‘A Little Late with Lilly Singh’ was shot outside studios, which we suppose poses a lot of challenges, especially when it comes to lightning. How did you solve them?
I feel more at home lighting on-location than in a studio. It’s what I’m used to! During pre-production I worked with Lilly and our production designer, Bonnie Bacevich, to determine our hero spots that we would return to throughout the show. Then I worked with my gaffer, Joe Baltazar, to create a semi-permanent lighting plan for those areas. Art team also purchased LED strips to build into some of the set design, such as the clouds mounted to the wall behind Lilly’s couch. I did camera tests with those strips to make sure they didn’t flicker on camera. We mounted some Litemats to the ceiling, but kept the majority of our lighting on stands to move around for different setups.
We suppose that you, as a main part of the industry, opt for led solutions in order to provide an extra flexibility and operability. Is that so?
Yes! I love having the flexibility of LED lighting, and I try to use RGB lights when the budget allows. Rosco provided us with several of their DMG Lumiere Mix lights, which give us access to Rosco’s full gel library within each of their lights. They also provide effects lighting, so we can come up with lightning flashes, TV flickers, or police lights within seconds.
Another great deal is the fact that you strictly followed all COVID measures. Could you tell us more about this?
We’ve grown accustomed to the Covid safety protocols, which involve getting tested three times a week and wearing masks and face shields on set. Our Covid safety officer makes sure we are social distancing whenever possible. The biggest challenge is each room has a maximum capacity, so we have to work in shifts while setting up. Art team goes first, then lighting, etc. Our largest room has a capacity of seven people, which speaks to how small our crew really is! Covid has also meant that all of our interviews are remote. Our guests appear on a large TV screen that Lilly sits across from in the living room.
Furthermore, we’re sure COVID has affected your postproduction workflows as well. Are you editing the program remotely?
Yes, the show is edited remotely and our post supervisor, Jesse Schiller, did a great job creating that workflow. All of the editors are using Avid from home. The dailies are uploaded to FineCut, which makes it easy for me to review the footage.
Finally, do you think that in the future TV programs will improve their final look thanks to the work of DPs specialized in these formats?
TV has been moving in a more cinematic direction for years, thanks to very talented DPs, producers and directors. I’m really grateful to the executive producers, Lilly Singh and Polly Auritt, for giving me the chance to use my cinematic brain on this show. We’re making a late night show that feels refreshing and unique. I hope it leads the way for other unique late night shows, and more female and BIPOC hosts!