The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) is most famous for hosting the Oscars, but the organization also attempts to preserve the history of the motion picture industry—and sort out its technological future. ACES, which you might have heard of recently in the press surrounding Cafe Society, is a technology that's been around for a few years; until recently, it’s been mainly geared towards colorists. However, the Academy is doing a big push to expand ACES' use, from pre-production through release—and if using it helped convince Woody Allen and Vittorio Storaro to go digital, every filmmaker should know about it.
With ACES being used on massive productions like Guardians of the Galaxy II, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that it's just as useful for the indie filmmaker.
Aside from having a cool name, ACES is quite complex—we won’t go into detail about all of it. To break it down, ACES is a system designed to deal with a very, very common problem we all run into as filmmakers: how your movie looked on set/in the edit room/in the color suite isn’t how it looks in the theater/on your TV.
This is tremendously frustrating as a filmmaker. On set, while you want to tell clients to trust the real scene more than the monitor, they are going to watch the monitor and evaluate your work, so if the skin tone there is too orange—even if you know you can fix it in post—they are going to comment on it. Or, worse, if the monitor makes the client's product look wrong, you can end up lighting it to make it look right on the monitor, only for it to look wrong in post. Similarly, the footage can look great in the edit suite, but terrible when you output it to the world. (Or great in Resolve, but terrible in After Effects, and worse in Premiere... and so on.)
ACES is designed to be future-proof, preserving color data in captured footage even if it’s beyond the capabilities of current display technology.
These issues made Storaro reluctant to shoot digitally, but thanks to ACES, he did so with Cafe Society. How does ACES solve these problems? More acronyms! The two most important are IDT and ODT, and, eventually, they will be as familiar to filmmakers as NTSC or ISO.
IDT is the Input Device Transform. This is a profile that is designed for every single capture device that transforms imagery from whatever camera you have shot into the same ACES space. Doing this involves an incredible amount of calibration and testing on the part of the group at AMPAS in charge of maintaining ACES, since manufacturers are continually refining their camera technology.
A quick look at the IDTs in Resolve shows a very long list:
IDT list from Resolve.Credit: Resolve
If IDT is for input, it makes sense that ODT is Output Display Transform. ODT the footage from the ACES space and properly calibrates it for each individual display technology.
With ACES being used on massive productions like Guardians of the Galaxy II, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that it's just as useful for the independent filmmaker. Luckily for us, ACES is implemented in DaVinci Resolve, where it’s available as an optional color science in competition with Resolve's native DaVinci YRGB color science. This means you can go out—right now!—and start using ACES on your next production. (Of course, like all new workflows, we highly recommend you test a few times first.)
ACES, though officially released at NAB 2015, was developed by the Academy for more than five years before that, and is currently being used on productions big and small to manage color workflow from capture through delivery. ACES is designed to be future-proof, preserving color data in your captured footage even if it’s beyond the capabilities of current display technology. ACES is already ready for Rec. 2100, the technical specifications for HDR broadcast, and will continue to expand as the industry does.