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Editing Gilmore Girls

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By Mary Ann Skweres
Gilmore Girls presents some special challenges to editors. The fast-paced, episodic WB comedy-drama was created by executive producer Amy Sherman-Palladino, whose writing credits include Veronica’s Closet and Rosanne. According to editor David Bertman, “The writers spend a lot of time writing and [the shows] feel like mini-features.”
A standard hour-long episodic script is usually around 60 pages. Filled with tongue-in-cheek dialog peppered with pop culture references, the scripts for Gilmore Girls usually come in between 65 and 80 pages and have to fit into a network television hour—42 minutes without the commercials. The actors get big chunks of dialog and have to go through them verbatim. On the set, everyone is very aware that “the word is gold.” It takes a long time to make sure that they get the words down exactly as written, their rapid-fire exchanges keeping up the pace during shooting.
Sherman-Palladino, who also directs some of the episodes, likes a very fast-paced show. She feels that people in the real world talk much faster than they do in television. The length of the scripts dictates the necessity for fast-paced editing, though the original pilot didn’t start out that way. It had more conventional pacing, but editor Jill Savitt likes to cut to the chase.
During the first season Savitt worked on speeding up the cuts. Once the editing pace increased, the running time came in low, so Sherman-Palladino added pages to the script. Together they created a different type of show with the quirky quality of a Northern Exposure and a unique style and pace that has become a trademark of the series.
The show is shot in a traditional feature style. Every scene has a master and coverage. Because there is so much script to cover in a short amount of time, there’s little time for “shoe leather” such as a character crossing the room. All of the actors’ business has to be done while they’re speaking. In other words, if they have to pick something up, they have to do it while they’re talking because that’s the only time the edit is going to be on them. The shot list is very detailed as to where to put the camera, what close-ups and inserts are needed. The production doesn’t spend time on big crane or moving shots. Steadicam is frequently used, but even when there is camera motion, dialog still has to cover that move since that move is time and time has to be used to progress the story. So there’s a true marriage between creative and technical storytelling.
Dialog determines the pacing of the show. And the editors increase the pacing of the dialog by taking out all the air between lines. There are rarely 10-second pauses for dramatic emphasis; if the actor is given one, it becomes a very meaningful moment on screen.
According to Bertman, one of Sherman-Palladino’s strengths is working with the editors. Spending a lot of time in editorial, she comes prepared. And only Sherman-Palladino can make line cuts, always deciding what is crucial to the story. She has strong preferences on line readings and performance. “We can discuss things and figure out what works best for the show performance-wise, innuendo, nuance, all that,” says Bertman.
Keeping an open line of communication, the editors frequently call to ask her to look at a performance or determine if something doesn’t ring true. Although she is busy running the show, she’ll stop what she is doing for editorial. Occasionally, to even out running time between a show coming in short and one with excess time, the editors will move scenes between shows—though this rarely happens since the writing is finely crafted and character arcs through the whole season are meticulously planned.
Currently the editing crew consists of Bertman and Raul Davalos (Savitt left to edit a feature), and two assistants, Cindy Fret and Albert Coleman. They have three Avids to work on. One system is devoted to dailies, outputs, cuts and diagnostics. The assistants don’t have to work the night shift to get on the Avids. Instead the editors stagger shifts so that the assistants can get on their systems to bring in scenes, set-up ADR notes and perform all the organizational duties necessary to keep the cutting room running smoothly. It’s a packed schedule in terms of the Avid time being used, but it works well for this crew.
Every episode has an eight-day shooting schedule. Because of the lengthy scripts, an above-average amount of footage is shot for each episode. An average episode shoots one-and-a-half to two hours of dailies a day, corresponding to about 10 pages of script. Generally this edits down to 5–6 minutes of final cut footage. The editors stay up to camera, with one day after shooting wraps to finish their cut. The director has four days on the cut, after which Sherman-Palladino comes in to do the producer’s cut while dailies start to come in for the next show.
The shows generally overlap. Editors start cutting the new episode’s dailies in between working with the producer to fine-tune the previous show. About three or four weeks after shooting is complete, the show is either mixing or ready to air. A show is never turned over until Sherman-Palladino is happy with it.
In its fourth season, Gilmore Girls, which subtly presents good family values, is still going strong—a hit for the WB.

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