The technology and engineering behind ACES, the open-source Academy Color Encoding System, may be complex but the idea is simple: bring footage from multiple high-resolution cameras and camera types on a single shoot, or across a variety of shoots, into the same extraordinarily wide—and future proof—color space. Grading Sony F65, C300 and Alexa footage on a single timeline? Delivering to multiple formats and already thinking about those to come? Want a consistently accurate color preview of images captured on set and the highest fidelity, archive-ready digital master possible? ACES has you covered.
Officially launched during NAB 2015, ACES had been in the works for at least five years when it was first used professionally in 2011 on FX's ground-breaking hit, Justified. “It’s not nuanced detail," Curtis Clark, chair of the ASC Technology Committee, told Bryant Frazer at the time. "It’s significant. That’s why the excitement is there.” ACES is capable of encoding every color viewable to the human eye, so the future looks very bright indeed.
What many may not yet realize is why shifting to an ACES workflow is a game changer for every production, regardless of its size. To that end, the Academy has recently created a Web site, portal and forum, and Twitter feed to help educate the community and spread the word. Too busy to keep up? Here's a top-level summary of why the Academy and others believe this standard will stick.
1) From tentpoles to TV spots, more cinematographers are requesting it.
Colorists were the first to discover and experiment with ACES but once directors, DPs and VFX supervisors began to understand its reach, the tide soon turned. At NAB this year several vendors confirmed end-to-end ACES workflows are already shaping films like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and 85 other features, shorts and TV episodes across the globe have been shot, graded, mastered and delivered with ACES to date. During a Canon presentation on the show floor, DP Andrew Shulkind described using it for both commercials and virtual reality projects. And this Atlanta facility uses ACES for a wide range of creative work both big and small.
2) The results are extraordinarily better than LUT-based workflows. Plus, ACES is simpler to use.
While LUTs have long helped those on set and in post dial in creative looks, they've never been very good at transforming sequences, let alone entire scenes or a final output (hello Rec709). Too much precious color and image detail would inevitably get clipped in the process. The ACES workflow instead preserves everything during the transform, no pre- or post-LUT jiggering required.
Lustre (the Justified grading system), Baselight, Nucoda and Scratch were among the early ACES adopters and the Academy has since partnered with Autodesk, FilmLight, Digital Vision, Assimilate and 21 other manufacturers to build the science into their products, giving users instant and simplified access to ACES color management throughout an entire pipeline. These ACES-compliant partners include Arri, Canon, Codex, Colorfront, Deluxe, Dolby Labs, Firefly Cinema, FotoKem, The Foundry, Fujifilm North America, Light Illusion, Marquise Technologies, MTI Film, Panasonic, Pomfort, Red, SGO, Shotgun Software, Snell, Sony Electronics and Technicolor. Others, including Adobe and Blackmagic Design, were also involved during testing. And although Blackmagic is not an official partner it does offer ACES as an option inside DaVinci Resolve, alongside its own Resolve Color Management. A few short steps will take you from the default DaVinci YRGB color space to ACES once you select the unique ACES IDT (Input Device Transform) that corresponds to the specific camera footage.
3) It's not just for all-digital projects.
A massive container for multiple current and future workflows, ACES' widened dynamic range and color gamut can also handle hybrid digital/film projects and supports film-based production workflows still being used in tandem with DIs and visual effects. Arri's ARRISCAN film scanners, for example, can be configured to produce ACES-compatible files via an extra calibration process. But even if you've waited an entire career to make the full switch to digital (see number 7, below), ACES elevates the creative results of both digital and hybrid films to those not previously possible.
4) ACESproxy brings floating-point values to on-set previews.
ACES IDTs turn Log footage into 16-bit half-precision floating-point OpenEXR files. When working on location, however, those kinds of floating-point values typically can't be used to monitor clips and scenes. That's where ACESProxy comes in: an integer encoding wrapper that lets you send versions of the OpenEXR files over HD-SDI to displays on set. ACESProxies are lower quality and aren't meant to be saved for the long haul, but they will give you much better previews as you work.
5) It paves the way for formats to come.
The ACES roadmap for tomorrow's higher-res cameras and displays is a pretty wide-open field: it already contains the intensely deep and wide color gamut specified in Rec. 2020 (4K/UDHTV), as well as the recently announced Rec. 2100, which defines HDR. Existing 4K/UDHTVs can't yet fully display what you capture and grade in ACES today, but one day they will.
6) Big guns like Universal and Netflix are already true believers.
Widespread adoption can only happen when major studios require it, and this spring, Universal Studios became the first to map out a comprehensive ACES plan that would touch every one of its films starting in 2018. Netflix's Chris Clark, production engineer for Original Content, told NAB 2016 audiences Netflix is also a huge fan of ACES' open-source and cross-platform structure, not to mention its future-proof implications. Hint, hint: Pixar, ILM, Warner Bros., Disney, MPC, Digital Domain and Dreamworks Animation were all involved during the Academy's development and testing period, so expect more adoption news in the coming year.
7) The color science even persuaded film-centric Woody Allen and DP Vittorio Storaro to go digital.
When Woody Allen asked cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now, Reds, The Last Emperor) to shoot Café Society, the director's very first digital feature, Storaro had two firm conditions: crisp black levels that rivaled film and the ability to preview near-final output on set and during dailies. Colorist Anthony Raffaele, working in Baselight, says ACES' range let him emulate the texture, tone and density of film and deliver exactly what Storaro and Allen wanted.
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