ATLANTA BASED DIRECTOR/CINEMATOGRAPHER HUNTER HUGHES AND COLORIST NICK ANDERSON DESCRIBE HOW THEY CONFIGURED THEIR SHOOT AND POST PROCESSES TO USE ACES AND ARE BENEFITING ON LARGE AND SMALL PRODUCTIONS.
Q: How did you find out about ACES and what productions have you done with ACES?
A. (Hunter) My colorist, Nick, came to me about 3 years ago and said “you have to check out this new thing the Academy is doing”. We are always trying to stay on top of new technologies and workflows, and we happened to be doing lots of color experimentation at the time. The concept sounded great, so we began testing with the 0.7 version of ACES. We had some early success, and began using it on and off, in place of our typical LUT-based workflow. At that time ACES version 0.7 still had some kinks to be worked out, and it didn't seem to work for everything. However, when ACES version 1.0 was released it was truly phenomenal. It provided exactly what we were looking for. From that point forward, we’ve used ACES on literally every color-critical production coming through our pipeline.
The great thing about ACES is that it isn't limited to a particular style of production. We have a really broad range of clients and have utilized ACES successfully across that range: commercial, narrative, live event, corporate industrial, music video, reality TV, and more.
Our biggest client is Coca-Cola and we’ve used ACES across the board, from a simple talking head to a documentary series and all the way to televised commercial content.
Q: Is it harder to use ACES than the way you used to work?
A. (Hunter) Not at all. That is the amazing reality of ACES. It streamlines our whole workflow / color management system, and actually simplifies our process. With our LUT-based workflow it seemed like each project we did was a bit of a snowflake. We hadn’t found a repeatable process that we were in love with. ACES provides us with a repeatable workflow that is still loose enough to adapt to the needs of each individual production. Plus, the ease at which we achieve our intended look and overall color response is simply superior to what we had previously.
Q: What are some of the benefits of using ACES (as a DP) (as a colorist)?
A. (Hunter) As a cinematographer, ACES checks a lot of boxes. First and foremost, the color response is fantastic. Regardless of the camera I’m working with. The overall depth, separation, and richness of the image never ceases to impress me. It’s important to remember that ACES is not a “look” - the intention is not to simply transform your capture medium to ACES and stop there. It simply provides a working foundation upon which you can non-destructively build a great look. And that leads me to my other favorite benefit: transforming source material into a consistent working space. It becomes really easy to communicate with my colorist, project to project, when there is a consistency in the pre-grade and way the image handles. Since we use a 100% ACES color workflow, I can walk into the middle of a color session and know exactly what I’m looking at and how we got there. And the beauty is that ACES is designed to be future proof, so as new cameras emerge, it will simplify our ability to integrate those future cameras into our color workflow. As long as we have an Input Transform (IDT), any camera can fit into our process and be handled with the same consistency, whereas before, we would have to redesign our entire workflow with each new camera hitting the market.
A. (Nick) As a colorist, ACES gets rid of a lot of the “pre-conform” and “post-conform” work that I used to always have to do. With a LUT-based workflow, on a multi-cam shoot, my working space was always camera native. I would have to focus on one shot and then tell the client I would apply the hero look to the rest, which really meant building a tree of camera matching nodes and applying them to all the shots. With ACES, all I have to do is drop in an IDT and I don’t have to figure out how the controls affect every camera. Beyond the technical aspects, when I start with an image in ACEScc it looks rich and textured. All the issues that may be in the shot like color balance or exposure are all still there, but since ACEScc is perfectly logarithmic, they can be adjusted with printer light keys in Resolve. The rich vibrant colors never have a saturated video look, so it is a much better point to dial back from instead of the unpredictable saturation response when working underneath a LUT. The actual grading controls adjust the parts of the image I want them to. Offset handles exposure and overall balance. Gain adjusts my highlights and is most often used to actually change the color of light sources in a scene. Gamma targets mostly the range of skin-tones and acts as a balance of how textured the image is. Lift adjusts the shadows and is generally used to add a dark edge to the image. A lot of the work I do deals with a lot of shots in very little time, so having a predictable color management system that doesn’t make me fight the controls goes a long way to getting the job done on time.
Q: Describe a workflow with ACES that you used on a particular production. How did it help your achieve your goals?
A. (Hunter) Like I said, I’ve used ACES on a wide gamut of productions (pun intended haha). I’ll break down a few examples:
Viacom - VH1 - Love and Hip Hop Atlanta
A. (Hunter) Viacom hired me to shoot a glam piece for VH1’s Love and Hip Hop Atlanta. I was thrilled when they asked me to oversee the color process. They wanted me to ensure that my visual style was maintained in the edit, and for various reasons, they wanted us to deliver 100% colored material to the editor after the shoot. I spoke with their post supervisor and green lighted an ACES workflow. He was very excited to see what we could do. We shot all Sony Slog3, and had a DIT on set who was inputting cards into Resolve as we shot. I was able to build my look after the first scene and pre-grade all the content while on set. Then the following day, we continued work in our color suite and do our second pass with power windows, qualifiers, etc., and brought it to its final form. We delivered ProRes 422 HQ final renders for our deliverable. This is some of my favorite ACES graded content… the richness and color depth I was mentioning become very apparent here.
A. (Nick) This project is really a testament to how much ACES streamlines my workflow. Hunter mentioned that he was working on this commercial and that he may need me to do color. As I am packing to go on a trip to California for work, he calls me and tells me we need to get all the dailies done before I leave. Within a half hour he was in my suite and we were going through color. We were able to jump right into building the look. Once we got something we liked, we flagged all the trouble shots and then went through them one by one with keyframes and power windows. Within 3 hours, we have 2 days worth of dailies colored and ready to go. I headed out the door and Hunter was able to bring the Resolve project file into his workstation and render everything out. The real benefit that any colorist can appreciate is the ability to jump right into color and the creative process with a client and get the job done.
Imagine Music Festival 2015
A. (Hunter) The 2015 “after movie” for Imagine Music Festival proved to be the most technically challenging post-production process I’ve ever completed. I had shot the 2014 movie and used my old post workflow. We ran into a lot of issues back then. So I came into 2015 knowing this would be a full ACES pipeline. We shot 12 cameras. 90% of the film is Sony F55/F5/FS7 (although we slipped in a few shots from the A7rII, RED and DJI.) I was very excited to use ACES with this project. Something to note, we used Adobe Premiere to edit this film. And I did a LUT-based one-light on the whole movie prior to sending to Resolve for color. I thought the film looked great then. However, when we brought it into the ACES space and started grading. I think our jaws dropped. It really came to life. You’ll really have to just watch it, it has such rich saturation and I just love where we landed with the final look. If I attempt to go in-depth explaining this video we will be here all day...
A. (Nick) Music festival “after movies” are like music videos on steroids. The number of shots in this 10-minute video rivals that of a feature film. I believe that we came in around 750 shots, almost all of which required a unique grade since lighting conditions change wildly. Many people think ACES requires RAW or OpenEXR sources, but we got great results using almost entirely XAVC-I 4K with SLog3 baked-in. There are always benefits to getting as much data as possible to work with, but on a 12-camera shoot across 2 days for a Youtube video it isn’t practical. Even some DJI phantom H.264 footage came in really well with the standard Rec.709 (Camera) IDT. This festival has some ridiculous editing and an insane amount of cuts, so dealing with a complex LUT-based workflow was simply not an option.
A. (Nick) When Hunter asked me to post-supervise the Clairvoyance trailer, I was really excited since I am a total sci-fi geek. As we talked more, I became concerned with how we would handle a variety of VFX artists working across the U.S. on budget, which was really no budget. While the elements were being built in Maya, most of the VFX work would be happening in After Effects with some work in Nuke. Being a colorist primarily, I knew that we needed a fool-proof color pipeline that would give me the most to work with at the end and avoid revisions with VFX artists that would most likely have gone on to other work. Very soon it became clear that Multi-Layered OpenEXR was the only thing that would work. It took color completely out of the VFX process. All the artists had to do was use OpenColorIO in After Effects and Nuke and provide me with multi-layered OpenEXRs with each layer converted to ACEScg. Nuke was ready right off the bat, but After Effects was not as simple. After working with the incredible ACES support team, I found fnord’s ProEXR plugin for After Effects and worked out the kinks of the After Effects color management system.
With the color management system in place, I built a folder structure for collaboration. Identical drives would be sent to everyone on the post team and BitTorrent Sync used to synchronize the project and smaller asset folders. Now, at any time, myself or another artist can open someone else’s project and render out what they need. Only small assets need to be sent over the internet. All of this would not be possible without ACES, since it allows this whole process to be non-destructive. As the colorist, I have full access to every layer of a VFX shot and can make creative decisions never possible before. Most importantly, all the layers maintain their full color data, so nothing is clipped or lost like it would be using input LUTs.
Q: Are there any misconceptions about ACES you'd like to clear up?
A. (Hunter) I think I touched on some of this earlier, but a few that come to mind would be:
-ACES performance depends on what you fill the bucket with. It doesn't make a bad camera good. It simply allows you to get the most out of that camera and ensures a non-destructive grading process. If you want to achieve the best results, input source material that makes the most of what ACES has to offer.
ACES doesn’t make everything the same or lock you into a “look”
ACES is not just exclusively for expensive motion picture work. We’ve used it on basic talking heads, all the way up to high-end commercial work. ACES doesn't require huge budget to utilize the benefits and it's very adaptable to your need.
ACES is not only for VFX, RAW, or multi-cam shoots. The best part about ACES is the starting place it gives you for the creative color process and the way it allows you to use your tools with more precision and intent than ever before. Even when working with compressed formats and non-RAW formats, ACES will make the most out of the data that you have. The most important thing is that you know what colorspace/gamma you are starting with and what display you are mastering for.
Hunter Hughes is an imaginative director / cinematographer based out of Atlanta, Georgia. Hunter is extremely well-versed in critical image capture, camera technologies and the development of cutting edge workflows. His company, Evolved Cinema LLC, is a multi-faceted filmmaking company that has worked with world-renowned corporations, such as The Coca-Cola Company, Viacom, and Red Bull, as well as, network television names: VH1, TBS, Starz, AMC, History Channel, etc.. Evolved Cinema’s diversified team and facilities allow them to create anything from narrative storytelling to commercials to virtual reality content and more. Hunter has a deep passion for his work, much of his time is spent on set, producing content, or consulting. But in his spare time he still manages to have his camera within arms reach.
Nick T. Anderson is a post production specialist who is highly skilled in workflow management, editorial, and DI ranging from on-set to final mastering. Nick has years of experience working freelance in post production, including projects for Universal, Disney, Paramount, 20th Century Fox, and more. Starting out as a dailies tech with Company 3 while still in school, Nick was able to get an inside look at high-end post production workflows early on in his career. He currently works for systems integration company DigitalGlue (formerly TBC Integration) assisting clients with media asset management, storage, and end to end post production workflows. At DigitalGlue’s new Atlanta based office, Nick explores next-gen workflows in collaboration with vendors such as RED, Silverdraft, Harmonic, Barnfind, Blackmagic Design, Adobe, and more.
Nick continues to be an active fixture in the Atlanta film industry. Beyond freelance post production services, Nick is a founding member of “The Tribe”, an Atlanta-based artist collective that brings together filmmakers, actors, musicians, and more to develop and produce narrative films.