Wikipedia Documentary "Truth in Numbers?" Shot with Panasonic P2

Accepting the challenge “you could look it up” used to lead to a walk to the library shelf and a browse through a weighty reference book. How last century. Contemporary knowledge-seekers are much more likely to consult Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that can be edited by anyone.

Glen Echo Entertainment recently wrapped production on Truth in Numbers?: The World According to Wikipedia, a full-length documentary that is being shot with Panasonic’s AJ-HPX3000 P2 HD camcorder. Truth in Numbers? is co-directed by Scott Glosserman and Nic Hill, with Eric Koretz as director of photography.

Director of Photography Eric Koretz
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The documentary explores the phenomenon that Wikipedia has become, its history, its founder (Jimmy Wales), and the implications of the sum of human knowledge being compiled by "everyone." Skeptics pose compelling questions—Are entries factually accurate? Biased? Accountable?—about whether Wikipedia’s model can truly achieve its goal.

An account of Wales’ unusual rise to Internet superstardom is interspersed with interviews with media figures including author Howard Zinn, Washington Post executive editor Len Downie, CBS News anchor Bob Scheiffer, former Encyclopedia Brittanica head Bob McHenry, former CIA head Jim Woolsey, Slate Magazine’s Chris Wilson and various Wikipedian editors.

Director of Photography Koretz shot a previous documentary, Love Limits, with Panasonic’s AG-HPX500 P2 HD camcorder. He became involved with Truth in Numbers? in January 2008, when the project changed ownership and direction, and upgraded to full-fledged HD shooting. (Some early footage was shot with an HDV camcorder.)

Washington Post executive editor Len Downie
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“We began shooting on the HPX500. When the budget allowed, we upgraded to the HPX3000,” Koretz explains. “I considered a P2 workflow essential to this project. We’ve been traveling to up to five cities per week for the past six months, and tape simply wouldn’t work. I didn’t want to check it or transport it, and tape is easily damaged. P2 cards are robust, reliable, and you can see your work right away. I far prefer P2 to any HDD-based system, where I wouldn’t be confident that the footage would be there at the end of the day.”

“Moreover, the HPX3000 gave us access to the AVC-Intra codec: full-raster 1920x1080 resolution with 4:2:2 10-bit sampling,” the DP adds. “Images are beautiful and occupy half the bit rate, which doubles P2 record times. Although we’re mixing HPX500 and HPX3000 footage, we’re able to use Cinema Tools in Final Cut Pro to bring everything together and convert it easily.”

  • Panasonic has a PDF FAQ about AVC-Intra, which is available here.
  • For more on Apple Final Cut Pro format support, click here.

The production’s equipment package, rented from Glendale, Calif., equipment rental company VER, comprised Fujinon HA22x7.8BERM 22x zoom and Canon HJ17ex7.6B IRSE lenses, the AG-HPG10 P2 Gear and Panasonic’s AJ-HVF21G HD viewfinder, in addition to the P2 HD camcorders. Koretz traveled with a Lowel Rifa eX 88 location lighting kit and a few gels to achieve optimal lighting setups with minimal equipment.

Author Howard Zinn
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“This was a very tough shoot, traveling from coast to coast and internationally, sometimes in multiple cities within the space of a week,” Koretz explains. “The HPX3000 excelled at quick setups for sit-down interviews in semi-controlled environments as well as at run-and-gun work, for example, following a professor around campus.”

“Because the production required so much travel, the budget didn’t allow a camera assistant and the workflow had to be smooth and efficient,” he continues. ”On Love Limits, I’d developed a P2 workflow, repeated on this project, that entailed setting up a laptop near the camera and attaching the P2 Gear via its USB port. The HPX500 has four P2 card slots, so we would cycle through the cards, transferring data to get continuous shooting—which is great because you can shoot indefinitely. The HPX3000 has five card slots, so even though I set up the transfer station, I rarely had to cycle through the cards. I primarily used five 16GB P2 cards. I had a system of folders that I would create on my laptop, so as I transferred the cards from the P2 Gear, I could easily keep track of what was being offloaded, and no data was lost.”

Truth in Numbers? is currently on hiatus as the crew awaits a nod to accompany Jimmy Wales to China as he negotiates a Chinese-language version of Wikipedia. Glen Echo Entertainment is handling the edit in-house, working on eight-core Intel-based Mac workstations running Final Cut Pro Studio HD. The finish will be timed for 2009 film festival submissions.

“The HPX3000 is an excellent tool for narrative features and documentaries,” Koretz adds. “It’s great for docs like ours that require continuous shooting. Some of our interviews exceeded 100 minutes, and an interruption would have been inexcusable—and unnecessary, given the current capacity of P2 cards. And picture-wise, the HPX3000 imagery is fabulous.”