From Glenn Gainor’s point of view, the Academy Color Encoding System (ACES) is a topic producers of all categories need to include in their dossier of technical subjects worth understanding for the simple reason that what used to be called “filmmaking’ is now a multi-format, multi-platform art form. Therefore, he suggests, those responsible for assembling the people and resources necessary for generating quality content for delivery on this new industry landscape—producers—need every advantage they can get in terms of literally getting everyone on the same page.
“We’re not just making a movie for the big screen, but for streaming and hard-disc formats and even for high dynamic range [displays],” explains Gainor, a longtime PGA member and head of physical production at Screen Gems. “ACES allows for consistency across many deliverables known today and new ones to come. As more people shoot in a manner that allows greater manipulation in the post-production process, it’s more important to understand the intended look, and that’s what [ACES helps achieve]. It’s like shooting what we used to call a ‘fat negative.’ You want as much information available for the post-production process so the movie can live in all formats.”
So what exactly is ACES and how does it help filmmakers achieve this goal? ACES is the free and open source color and digital file management system that began life as a project of the Academy’s Science and Technology Council about 10 years ago. Over the last two years, ACES 1.0 has officially rolled out as a device-independent workflow management standard meant to be incorporated into pipelines so as to permit color, file, and metadata consistency and control throughout entire productions, from the start of principal photography through final mastering and everything in between.
Andy Maltz, Managing Director of the Academy’s Science and Technology Council and project director for the ACES initiative, says the notion essentially was to come up with what he calls “a replacement” for the long, stable workflow infrastructure that existed across the industry during the film era when film lab methods were typically similar everywhere, ensuring consistency in processing and image quality. During the rise of the digital era, no comparable industry standard workflow rose up to take over. Instead a wide range of proprietary and constantly shifting methodologies became the norm.
ACES, he explains, was designed to put an end to the Wild West nature of digital production workflows caused by the advent of a seemingly endless number of different camera formats by simplifying the management of those different formats through the use of a common color space format to work in. The goal was to enable consistent color management through an entire production so that all principals could be confident they were viewing identical imagery, while future- proofing productions by ensuring masters of such high quality that their properties would be suitable for display technologies of the future—a particularly important topic these days with the emergence of higher dynamic range (HDR) display technology that is likely to only improve in coming years.
On the technical side, there is a lot more to the various components of ACES, which combined make up what is called the ACES Viewing Transform—the way that ACES files can be viewed on calibrated monitors. The various Viewing Transform components essentially deal with how to convert data to ACES color space, how to apply ACES data to shots, how to render or convert that data and then more or less how to spit it out in the correct viewing format for different kinds of monitors in different kinds of color space formats.
But the ultimate point for a producer or manager to understand is that ACES is intended to be the digital equivalent of “an original film negative to return to and scan at a higher resolution,” in the words of Lori McCreary, CEO of Revelations Entertainment and currently serving as one of the PGA’s Presidents. Thus ACES content is intended to be suitable for long-term archiving—content mastered and stored as uncompressed files at the highest dynamic range and color gamut possible, encoded to be unpacked and displayed on any foreseeable display technology. That’s a crucial point in the producing world, McCreary suggests.
“Today we typically capture at higher resolutions than we can finish on due to storage and cost restrictions,” she says. “So we finish and archive films in HD, or sometimes 4K, which looks great on current devices. But in five to 10 years, HD could look as bad to us as VHS does on high-resolution devices now. But if the industry adopts ACES and captures in the highest resolution available and archives in this resolution-independent way, this is our best solution to ensure that our content is future-proof, that it will look as good in the future as it does today.”
As noted, the technical nuances surrounding ACES—what it is (basically a suite of image-encoding specifications or “bits” of the picture; the various transform definitions and guidelines, what most people more commonly think of as look-up tables or LUTs; and various other tools) and what it is not (a software application or required or forced “look” to be applied to content, taking creative control away from filmmakers) can be confusing to those outside of the technical disciplines. And while some producers, like Gainor, supervise post-production and are keenly aware of these kinds of technical issues, many other producers, of course, train their focus in other areas and do not have, or for that matter, need or wish to have that level of technical expertise. This begs the question, “What is the proper way for the producing community to wrap its arms around the ACES initiative and figure out its proper role in their daily work?”
“Does every producer need an intimate working knowledge of ACES? No more than they typically needed to know how to thread a film camera back in the film days or know how to operate a color correction system,” says Maltz. “But they do need sufficient knowledge to be able to hire the right people. So they need the same level of understanding they need to hire cinematographers and colorists and everyone else. They need to know how to ask the right questions when a workflow is presented to them. As with anything else related to a producer’s work, it can be boiled down to knowing things that impact time, money and the quality of the product. ACES can touch on things related to all those areas in a positive way.”
Topics like future-proofing, standards, and file management were not major issues for producers in the film era, Maltz adds, because the film-based workflow was steady and standard for the better part of a century, and everybody worked, more or less, the same way. Today however, that has changed, and so producers tend to be more knowledgeable about such topics. In that sense, experienced producers suggest that maintaining knowledge of how ACES can impact productions, as well as of the costs, benefits and consequences of transitioning to an ACES-compliant workflow, pipeline, vendor or facility, is very much in keeping with traditional producer responsibilities.
“[As a producer], I’m charged with figuring out how to tell a story using cameras and lights and sets and finding the best crew and locations and looks, so that when my studio president greenlights a project, it is in the best form possible,” Gainor says. “[At Screen Gems] we’ve integrated ACES in 10 films now and continue to improve our ACES workflow. We’ve been employing the ACES workflow in every feature we directly produce since we shot No Good Deed  on the [Sony CineAlta] F65 camera. That was our first 16-bit, 8K RAW capture. It was important to start down the path of ACES with that movie, because the new cameras have so much latitude and give filmmakers so many options that we wanted to make sure that decisions made on set by the director and cinematographer were translated with their intentions in mind all the way through the post-production process. ACES allows us to lay down looks in a non-destructive manner—in other words, not baked in, so that all technicians who come across the material, from visual effects craftspeople to color-timers, will understand [the filmmakers’] intentions.”
And that is a key point, because one common concern in the creative community is that ACES somehow “locks in” looks or by implementing it, forces producers to tell creatives how to make their movie. Gainor, McCreary and other producers who have used ACES say that is not the case, and indeed, it was not designed for that purpose. Rather, Maltz describes ACES as being “about the plumbing,” meaning “you can run anything through the pipes that you want—in terms of creative looks, there are no practical restrictions and ACES protects content in a non-proprietary way for the widest variety of display options.”
In other words ACES describes, essentially, how image data from different camera sources can move to a common color space for the purpose of doing color correction, but not for purposes of how you creatively apply that color. The intent is to ensure whatever creative approach is taken, it will look its very best on the highest-end monitors available today and tomorrow. Gainor suggests that in modern workflows, the ACES approach can help prevent productions from being “boxed in,” in fact.
“Actually, there is tremendous latitude the filmmakers can apply later,” Gainor says. “What I love about ACES is that filmmakers have the ability to dial in specifically to what they intend the final product to be but without baking in colors that may not work once the film is fully edited, since you never know if a critical transitional scene needs to be perfected one way or the other.”
As part of its ongoing initiative to roll out ACES, the Academy is offering various resources and events to educate and promote the system’s capabilities to the creative side of the industry. Among other things, they are suggesting that producers follow a series of best practices on ACES-compliant productions. Those best practices include meeting early in a production’s life cycle with all key stakeholders to get everyone on the same page regarding which technologies are going to be utilized and how the workflow will be designed, what the deliverables will be, and discuss and plan solutions for any tools or facilities within the workflow that may not yet be fully ACES-compliant. Dozens of major hardware and software companies and major vendors around the world in all categories are already part of the initiative, and hundreds of feature-film and television productions have already been made using ACES-based workflows. But whenever there are reasons for the inclusion of non-ACES elements in the workflows, most experienced vendors and experts will be well acquainted with various work-arounds. Also recommended is a process of taking time to educate any participants in the process who are new to ACES, building time to test the workflow and pipeline into your schedule, and insisting that all monitors and displays being used by principals to view critical imagery be properly calibrated.
Meanwhile the Academy runs an evolving portal for ACES information at www.ACEScentralcom, where you will find a community forum to post or answer ACES questions, a link to an ACES YouTube channel for demos and information, an ACES event calendar and an ACES product planner list.