NAB 2015: VFX, The Academy and ACES 1.0

Whether you’re working in VFX or video, standards are incredibly important to make sure what you see on your screen is going to be the same that the viewer sees when they watch your work. At a recent NAB talk, Andy Maltz from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, the organization behind the Oscars, laid out the infrastructure for the Academy Color Encoding System (ACES) as a digital production standard. Both the motion picture and the television industries as we know them today were built on standards. You have anything from the 35mm film base to the standards laid out by the Society of Motion Picture & Television Engineers (SMPTE). The film manufacturers played a key role in standardizing the infrastructure for the motion picture industry and out of that standardization; we’ve seen a lot of improvements that may not have been as possible if the vendors behind the technology were working from differing specs. Now that we’ve transitioned to digital, Maltz explained, the industry has lost a standardized infrastructure. When VFX was new in the 1990s and early 2000s, the process was to capture the film, process it digitally and output back to film for theaters and finally archival purposes. When digital projection rolled around between the 2000s and 2010s, that pipeline changed. Film was still captured and processed digitally, but without the need to convert to a traditional projector, the output was a digital cinema package (DCP) but the industry was still generating film for archival purposes. Now that the industry has moved to being completely digital, the pipeline changes. Instead of capturing on film, footage is mostly captured digitally before being processed digitally and output to a DCP. The issue arises in the archival stage, because there is no standard for what goes into the archive. Movies used to be archived to film, but with the advent of digital, there is no standard container for archive anymore. Generally speaking, ACES was initiated by The Academy and is intended to be the digital replacement for the infrastructure that film provided the industry for mastering and long-term archiving. Included within ACES is a suite of encoding specifications, transform definitions and guidelines, metadata definitions, image data and metadata container specifications, developer tools and more. Since The Academy began the ACES project in 2004, a lot has changed in the motion picture industry. As might be expected, there were a few things they learned in that time. As Maltz outlined, some of the key components for ACES 1.0, which was released in a developers kit to manufacturers in December 2014, come with standardized image encoding specifications and file formats. ACES 1.0 components include: Standard image encoding specifications
  • Colorimetric: 16-bit half-float, wide gamut, high dynamic range, SMPTE ST2065-1:2012
  • Denistometric: 16-bit integer, fully-specified metrics, SMPTE ST2065-2-3:2012
Finalized transforms and methodologies
  • Image input (digital and film)
  • Image output (rendering and display)
Standardized file formats When working with ACES in VFX, the basic concept is that camera raw comes in through an ACES clip using the common LUT format (CLF), which Autodesk announced at NAB it already supports in the 2016 versions of Flame, Lustre and Maya. After running through the VFX pipeline, the idea is for ACES-standardized files to be output as they’re passed off to the next phase, whether that’s a dailies projector, editorial or DI. Autodesk has a good piece of documentation on their site where you can learn more about the ACES workflow in general, as well as how it applies in Autodesk software. To learn more about ACES, hop over to The Academy’s site on the project or grab ACES 1.0 on GitHub.