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21 October, 2016

Cinematography, finally!

I made some screen grabs from the recently released Red Dead Redemption 2 announcement trailer.

These were quite hastily and heavily processed (sorry) in an attempt to make the compression artifacts from the video show less.

Basically these are an average of 5-6 frames, a poor man's temporal anti-aliasing let's say (and the general blurring helps not to focus on the general balance of the image instead of being distracted by small details), and tons of film grain to hide blocking artifacts.

I am in love. Tasteful, amazing frames that don't look like something that was just arbitrarily color-graded to make it seem somewhat cool last minute like a bad Instagram filter.

Enjoy. Ok, let me spend a couple more words...

Some made this to be a technical comparison between titles. In a way it is, but it's not a comparison on resolution and framerate, or amount of leaves rendered, texture definition and so on.

In all these accounts I'm sure there are plenty of engines that do great, even better than RDR2, especially engines made to scale to PC.

Thing is, who cares? This shouldn't matter anymore. We're past the point where merely draw more pixels or more triangles is where technology is at. We're not writing tri-fillers, we're making images. Or at least, we should be.

Technology should be transparent. Great rendering should not show, great rendering happens when you can't point your finger and name a given feature, or effect implementation. We are means to and end, the end is what matters. And it is a matter of technology, or research and of optimization. But a different one.

It is absolutely easier to push a million blades of grass on screen than to make a boring, empty room that truly achieves a given visual goal.

It is absolutely easier to make a virtual texturing system that allows for almost one-to-one texel to pixel apparent resolution than to accurately measure and reproduce a complex material.

It is absolutely easier to make a hand optimized, cycle-tight uber post-effect pipeline than to write artists tools for actual rapid iteration and authoring of color variants in a scene.

I'm not claiming that this particular game does any of these things right. Maybe it's just great art direction. Maybe it's achieved by lots of artists iterating on the worst engine and tools possible. Or maybe it's years of R&D, it's very hard to tell, even more from a teaser-trailer (albeit it totally looks legit real-time on the platform). But that's the point, great rendering doesn't show, it just leaves great images.

And I hope that  more and more games (RDR is certainly not the only one) and art departments and engineers do realize that, the shift we're seeing. Rendering hasn't "peaked" for sure, but we need to shift our focus more and more towards the "high level".

We solve concrete problems, technology otherwise is useless. And, yes, that means that you can't do good tech without artists because you won't ever have great images without great art. Working in isolation is pointless.

And now... Enjoy!

The first Red Dead Redemption also holds up quite well all things considered... These are respectively from the introduction cinematic and one of the first missions:

And as "bonus images", some screens I've found from the recent Battlefield 1 and The Witcher 3.

01 October, 2016

More (silly) tone-mapping ideas

As a follow-up to my previous post I'll show here two more tone-mapping tricks. They are both "silly" in a way, they were done quickly and mostly while waiting for more important things to build, so they are far from "production quality".

They both are somewhat inspired by photography (but make no effort at all to simulate photographic effects, rather, they take inspiration from observing how certain things work), and I believe they could all be part (including the ideas of the previous post) of a single tone-mapping operator. 
All dynamic range compression algorithms have trade-offs and artifacts, so I believe it's not unwise to layer various methods each doing just a bit of compression, to achieve an overall larger reduction.

"Adaptive ND-Filter"

The idea of doing this test came from a discussion with my Italian friend Manuele Bonanno, as we were chatting about Bart's TM post (which I linked in the previous article).

In landscape photography is not uncommon to use graduated neutral density filters. A ND filter reduces all wavelengths of light equally, darkening the image without shifting colors, and can be used for particular effects like very long exposures or to be able to use wide lens apertures in daylight. 
A graduated ND filter does the same but using a gradient, and it's used typically to darken the sky (top half) relative to the other elements of the image.

A GND filter - from Tiffen Filters marketing material

The interesting thing to notice is that even if in photography these filters are made with a fixed gradient, in practice the effect is smooth enough that it can make a big difference on the final image without being noticeable. 
Our vision system is not good at detecting very low-frequency gradients in images, so after a given spatial frequency we can "cheat" liberally without being able to see artifacts.

How to apply this in computer graphics is rather obvious: let's just blur everything a lot and use that as a base for a localized tone-mapping operator (in the test below, I just scale the exposure by the blurred version of the image a bit, then apply global TM as usual).

Doing local tone-mapping with a gaussian blur average usually yields pretty strong haloing artifacts (and a lot of photographic HDR toning software actually is plagued by such halos), and my previous article tried to show an alternative that is both stupidly cheap and that can't result in haloing (as it's not using neighboring operators at all).

Without ND
With ND (save the images and A/B them by alternating the two)

The "insight" here is that you can also prevent haloing if you use gaussian blur, but you blur enough not to be at frequencies where haloing shows. And, of course, if you have a good quality bloom/veil effect, you can re-use the image pyramids from that almost directly. Just remember to apply a -neutral- (grayscale) ND!

The gaussian filter approximated with image pyramids

Used tastefully and in a temporally stable way I think it can work, and indeed my colleague Michal confirmed that he know of titles doing something similar. 
I did a quick test using COD:AW and the effect indeed works really well, actually even better indoors than outdoors often, reducing the amount of "auto-exposure" needed (which we don't push very far typically anyways).

Film Grain

What? Film grain is not about dynamic range, right? It's usually an artistic effect, at best it can be seen as a dithering method that can help avoiding Mach band artifacts. Right?

A detail from a film photo by Trent Parke

Well, not really. If you look at an actual photo you'll notice that grains mostly show in midtones, or rather, that pure whites and pure blacks either saturate grains or have no grains exposed, and thus appear as solid regions.

Thresholded version

This means that if we look at a thresholded version of a good film scan we can see a spatial dithering in the threshold. 
We have some black areas that have black grains but are not fully saturated with black, and then we have "blacker than black" areas where the same black grains appear spatially clustered to create an entirely saturated region (and the same happens in the highlights as well). 

This suggests that we can use dithering patterns not only to get more precision in the midtones, but also to extend a bit the range of highlights and shadows. If a dither pattern is symmetric and equally distributed around zero (as it should be), sometimes it will add luminosity and sometimes it will subtract it. 
So if an area is white, but not whiter-than-white, the times the pattern subtracts it will create darker pixels. In areas that are constantly whiter than the intensity of the dither, even after subtraction, we will still end up with a full white, and we will see saturated areas. 

The image above is a quick test of the theory. On the left, it uses just the simple, old good Reinhard tone-mapping (with black and white levels used to get contrast). The image on the right uses the exact same tone-mapping but also adds som RGB film grain. 
If you look at the shadows and the highlights you can notice that there is a bit more detail visible in the film-grain version (e.g. count the number of visible beams in the glass ceiling).

This is just a quick test, I tweaked the film grain actually to be less intense in the midtones (around 0.5) than near the extremes (0 and 1) to be able to push it a bit further without being too intense over the entire image. It can certainly be done in much better ways, but as far as silly experiments go, I'm rather happy. 
If you really wanted to be cheating, you could even just add grain in the shadows, which would definitely be a hack as you're adding energy but hey... it's not that we don't routinely do that (e.g. bloom/veil usually doesn't redistribute energy, it just adds it...)

P.s. real film grain is actually not easy to emulate (and I'm not trying to, here). This is the only attempt I know of.

11 September, 2016

Tone mapping & local adaption

My friend Bart recently wrote a series of great articles on tone mapping, showing how localized models can be useful in certain scenarios, and I strongly advise to head over to his blog to read that one first, which motivated me to finally dump some of my notes and small experiments on the blog...

Local tone mapping refers to the idea of varying the tone mapping per pixel, instead of applying a single curve globally on the frame. Typically the curve is adapted by using some neighborhood-based filter to derive a localized adaption factor, which can help preserve details in both bright and dark areas of the image.

At the extreme, local operators give the typical "photographic HDR" look, which looks very unnatural as it's trying to preserve as much texture information possible at the detriment of brightness perception.

HDR photography example from lifehacker

While these techniques help display the kind of detail we are able to perceive in natural scenes, in practice the resulting image only exacerbates the fact that we are displaying our content on a screen that doesn't have the dynamic range that natural scenes have, and the results are very unrealistic.

That's why global tonemapping is not only cheaper but most often appropriate for games, as we aim to preserve the perception of brightness even if it means sacrificing detail.
We like brightness preservation so much in fact, that two of the very rare instances of videogame-specific visual devices in photorealistic rendering are dedicated to it: bloom and adaption.

Veiling glare in COD:AW

Most of photorealistic videogames still, and understandably, borrow heavily from movies, in terms of their visual language (even more so than photography), but you will never see the heavy-handed exposure adaption videogames employ, in movies, nor you'll see what we usually call "bloom", normally (unless for special effect, like in a dreamy or flashback sequence).

Of course, a given amount of glare is unavoidable in real lenses, but that is considered an undesirable characteristic, an aberration to minimize, not a sought-after one! You won't see a "bloom" slider in lightroom, or the effect heavily used in CG movies...

An image used in the marketing of the Zeiss Otus 24mm,
showing very little glare in a challenging situation

Even our eyes are subject to some glare, and they do adapt to the environment brightness, but this biological inspiration is quite weak as a justification for these effects, as no game really cares to simulate what our vision does, and even if that was done it would not necessarily improve perceived brightness, as simulating a process that happens automatically for us on a 2d computer screen that then is seen through our eyes, doesn't trigger in our brain the same response as the natural one does!

Trent Parke

So it would seem that all is said and done, and we have a strong motivation for global tonemapping. Except that, in practice, we are still balancing different goals!
We don't want our contrast to be so extreme that nothing detail can be seen anymore in our pursuit of brightness representation, so typically we tweak our light rigs to add lights where we have too much darkness, and dim lighting where it would be too harsh (e.g. the sun is rarely its true intensity...). Following cinematography yet again.

Gregory Crewdson

How does local tone mapping factor in all this? The idea of local tone mapping is to operate the range compression only at low spatial frequency, leaving high-frequency detail intact. 
One one hand this makes sense because we're more sensitive to changes in contrast at high-frequency than we are at lower frequencies, so the compression is supposed to be less noticeable done that way.

Of course, we have to be careful not to create halos, which would be very evident, so typically edge-aware frequency separation is used, for example employing bilateral filters or other more advanced techniques (Adobe for example employs local laplacial pyramids in their products, afaik).

But this kind of edge-aware frequency separation can be also interpreted in a different way. Effectively what it's trying to approximate is an "intrinsic image" decomposition, separating the scene reflectance from illuminance (e.g. Retinex theory).

So if we accept that light rigs must be tweaked compared to a strict adherence to measured real scenes, why can't we directly change the lighting intensity with tone mapping curves? And if we accept that, and we understand that local tonemapping is just trying to decompose the image lighting from the textures, why bothering with filters, when we have computed lighting in our renderers?

This is a thought that I had for a while, but didn't really put in practice, and more research is necessary to understand how exactly one should tone-map lighting. But the idea is very simple, and I did do some rough experiments with some images I saved from a testbed.

The decomposition I employ is trivial. I compute an image that is the scene as it would appear if all the surfaces where white (so it's diffuse + specular, without multiplying by the material textures) and call that my illuminance. Then I take the final rendered image, divide it by the illuminance to get an estimate of reflectance.

Note that looking at the scene illuminance would also be a good way to do exposure adaption (it removes the assumption that surfaces are middle gray), even if I don't think adaption will ever by great done in screen-space (and if you do so, you should really look at the anchoring theory), better to look at more global markers of scene lighting (e.g. light probes...).

Once you compute this decomposition, you can then apply a curve to the illuminance, multiply the reflectance back in, and do some global tone mapping as usual (I don't want to do -all- the range compression on the lighting). 

Standard Reinhard on the right, lighting compression on the left.
The latter can compress highlights more while still having brighter mids.

I think with some more effort, this technique could yield interesting results. It's particularly tricky to understand what's a proper midpoint to use for the compression, and what kind of courve to apply to the lighting versus globally on the image, and how to do all this properly without changing color saturation (an issue in tone mapping in general), but it could have its advantages.

In theory, this lies somewhere in between the idea of changing light intensities and injecting more lights (which is still properly "PBR"), and the (bad) practices of changing bounce intensity and other tweaks that mess with the lighting calculations. We know we have to respect the overall ratios of shadow (ambient) to diffuse light, to specular highlights (and that's why tweaking GI is not great). 
But other than that, I don't think we have any ground to say what's better, that's to say, what would be perceptually closer to the real scene as seen by people, for now, these are all tools for our artists to try and figure how to generate realistic images.

I think we too often limit ourselves by trying to emulate other mediasIn part, this is reasonable, because trying to copy established visual tools is easier both for the rendering engineer (less research) and for the artists (more familiarity). But sooner or later we'll have to develop our own tools four our virtual worlds, breaking free of the constraints of photography and understanding what's best for perceptual realism.


Adding lights and changing the scenes is a very reasonable first step towards dynamic range compression: effectively we're trying to create scenes that have a more limited DR to begin with, so we work with the constraints of our output devices.

Adding fill lights also can make sense, but we should strive to create our own light rigs, there's very little reason to constrain ourselves to point or spots for these. Also, we should try to understand what could be done to control these rigs. In movies, they adapt per shot. In games we can't do that, so we have to think of how to expose controls to turn these on and off, how to change lighting dynamically.

Past that, there is tone-mapping and color-grading. Often I think we abuse of these because we don't have powerful tools to quickly iterate on lighting. It's easier to change the "mood" of a scene by grading rather than editing light groups and fill lights, but there's no reason for that to be true! 
We should re-think bloom. If we use it to represent brightness, are the current methods (which are inspired by camera lenses) the best? Should we experiment with different thresholds, with maybe subtracting light instead of just adding it (e.g. bring slightly down the scene brightness in a large area around a bright source, to increase contrast...).
And also, then again, movies are graded per shot, and by masking (rotoscoping) areas. We can easily grade based on distance and masks, but it's seldom done.

Then we have all the tools that we could create beyond things inspired by cinematography. We have a perfect HDR representation of a scene. We have the scene components. We can create techniques that are impossible when dealing with the real world, and there are even things that are impractical in offline CGI which we can do easily on the other hand. 
We should think of what we are trying to achieve in visual and perceptual terms, and then find the best technical tool to do so.

28 August, 2016

A retrospective on Call of Duty rendering

In my last post I did a quick recap of the research Activision published at Siggraph 2016. As I already broke my long-standing tradition of never mentioning the company I work for on my blog, I guess it wouldn't hurt, for completeness sake, to do a short "retrospective" of sorts, recapping some of the research published about the past few Call of Duty titles. 

I'll to remark, my opinion on the blog is as always personal, and my understanding of COD is very partial as I don't sit in production for any of the games.

I think COD doesn't often do a lot of "marketing" of its technology compared to other games, and I guess it makes sense for a title that sells so many copies to focus its marketing elsewhere and not pander to us hardcore technical nerds, I love the work Activision does on the trailers in general (if you haven't seen the live-action ones, you're missing out), but still it's a shame that very few people consider what tricks come into play when you have a 60hz first person shooter on ps3.

Certainly, -I- didn't! But my relationship with COD is also kinda odd, I was fairly unaware/uninterested in it till someone lent me the DVD I think of MW2 for 360 a long time after release, and from there I binge-played MW1 and Black Ops... Strictly single-player, mostly for their -great- cinematic atmosphere (COD MW2 is probably my favorite in that regard of previous-gen, together with Red Dead Redemption), and never really trying to dissect their rendering.
By the way, if you missed on COD single player, I think this critique of the campaign over the various titles is outstanding, worth your time.

Thing is, most games near the end of the 360/ps3 era went on to adopt new deferred rendering systems, often without, in my opinion, having solid reasons to do so. 

COD instead stayed on a "simple" single-pass forward rendering, mostly with a single analytic light per object. 
Not much to talk about at Siggraph there (with some exceptions), but with a great focus on mastering that rendering system: aggressive mesh splitting per lights and materials (texture layer groups), an engine -very- optimized to emit lots of drawcalls, and lightmapped GI (which manages to be quite a bit better than most of no-GI many-light deferred engines of the time).

Modern Warfare 2

IMHO a lesson on picking the right battles and mastering a craft, before trying to add a lot of kitchen-sink features without much reasoning, which is always very difficult to balance in rendering (we all want to push more "stuff" in our engines, even when it's actually detrimental, as all unneeded complexity is).

Call of Duty: Ghosts

The way I see Ghosts is as a transition title. It's the first COD to ship on next-gen consoles, but it still had to be strong on current-gen, which is to be expected for a franchise that needs a large install base to be able to hit the numbers it hits. 

Developers now had consoles with lots more power, but still had to take care of asset production for the "previous" generation while figuring out what to do with all the newfound computational resources.

For Ghosts, Infinity Ward pushed a lot on the geometrical detail rather than doing much more computation per pixel and that makes sense as it's easier to "scale" geometry than it is to fit expensive rendering systems on previous-gen consoles. This came with two main innovations: hardware displacement mapping and hardware subdivision (Catmull-Clark) surfaces.

Both technologies were a considerable R&D endeavor and were presented at Siggraph, GDC and in GPU Pro 7.

Albeit both are quite well known and researched, neither was widely deployed on console titles, and the current design of the hardware tessellator on GPUs is of limited utility, especially for displacement, as it's impossible to create subdivision patterns that match well the frequency detail of the heightmaps (this is currently, afaik, the state-of-the-art, but doesn't map to tiled and layered displacement for world detail).

Wade Brainerd recently presented with Tim Foley et al. some quite substantial improvements for hardware Catmull-Clark surfaces and made a proposal for a better hardware tessellation scheme at this years' Open Problems in Computer Graphics.

A level in COD:Ghosts, showcasing displacement mapping

For the rest, Ghosts is still based on mesh-splitting single-pass forward shading, and non-physically based models (Phong, that the artists were very familiar with).

Personally, I have to say that IW's artists did pull the look together and I Ghosts can look very pretty, but, in general, the very "hand-painted" and color-graded look is not the art style I prefer.

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare

Advanced Warfare is the first COD to have its production completely unrestricted by "previous-gen" consoles, and compared to Ghosts it takes an approach that is almost a complete opposite, spending much more resources per pixel, with a completely new lighting/shading/rendering system.

At its core is still a forward renderer but now capable of doing many lights per surface, with physically based shaders. It does even more "mesh splits" (thus more drawcalls) and generates a huge amount of shader permutations to specialize rendering exactly for what's needed by a given piece of geometry (shadows, lighting, texturing and so on...).

We did quite a bit of research on the fundamental math of PBR for it and it employs an entirely new lightmap baking pipeline, but where it really makes a huge difference, in my opinion, is not on the rendering engine per se, but on its keen dedication to perceptual realism.

It's a physically based renderer done "right": doing PBR math right is relatively "easy", teaching PBR authoring to artists is much harder (arguably, not something that can be done over a single product, even) but making sure that everything makes (perceptual) sense is where the real deal is, and Sledgehammer's attitude during the project was just perfect.

Math and technology of course matter, and checking the math against ground-truth simulations is very important, but you can do a perfectly realistic game with empirical math and proper understanding of how to validate (or fit) your art against real-world reference, and you can do on the other hand a completely "wrong" rendering out of perfectly accurate math...

"Squint-worthy" is how Sledgehammers's rendering lead Danny Chan calls AW's lighting quality.
Things make sense, they are overall in the right brightness ratios

Advanced Warfare did also many other innovations, Jorge Jimenez authored a wonderful post-effect pipeline (he really doesn't do anything if it's not better than state of the art!) and AW also took a new version of our perpetually improving performance capture (and face rendering) technology, developed in collaboration with ICT

But I don't think that any single piece of technology mattered for AW more than the studio's focus on perceptual realism as a rendering goal. And I love it!

Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 

I won't talk much about Black Ops 3, also because I already did a post on Siggraph 2016 where we presented lots of rendering innovations done during the previous few years. 
The only presentation I'd like to add here, which is a bit unrelated to rendering, is this one: showing how to fight latency by tweaking animations.

Personally I think that if Sledgehammer's COD is great in its laser focus on going very deep exploring a single objective, Black Ops 3 is just crazy. Treyarch is crazy! Never before I've seen so many rendering improvements pushed on such a large, important franchise. Thus I wouldn't know really where to start... 

BO3 notably switched from forward to deferred, but I'd say that most of what's on screen is new, both in terms of being coded from scratch and often times also in terms of being novel research, and even behind the scenes lots of things changed, tools, editors, even the way it bakes GI is completely unique and novel.

If I had to pick I guess I can narrow BO3 rendering philosophy down to unification and productivity. Everything is lit uniformly, from particles to volumetrics to meshes, there are a lot less "rendering paths" and most of the systems are easier to author for.

All this sums up to a very coherent rendering quality across the screen, it's impossible to tell dynamic objects from static ones for example, and there are very few light leaks, even on specular lighting (which is quite hard to occlude).

Stylistically I'd say, to my eyes, it's somewhere in between AW and Ghosts. It's not quite as arbitrarily painted as Ghosts, and it is a PBR renderer done paying attention to its accuracy, but the data is quite more liberally art directed, and the final rendered frames lean more towards a filmic depiction than close adherence to perceptual realism.

Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare not out yet, and I won't talk about its rendering at all, of course!

It's quite impressive though to see how much space each studio has to completely tailor their rendering solutions to each game, year after year. COD is no Dreams, but compared to titles of similar scope, I'd say it's very agile.

So rest assured, it's yet again quite radically different than what was done before, and it packs quite a few cute tricks... I can't imagine that most of them won't appear at a Siggraph or GDC, till then, you can try to guess what it's trying to accomplish, and how, from the trailers!

Three years, three titles, three different rendering systems, crafted for specific visual goals and specific production needs. The Call of Duty engines don't even have a name (not even internally!), but a bunch of very talented, pragmatic people with very few artificial constraints put on what they can change and how.

13 August, 2016

Activision @ Siggraph 2016

Siggraph 2016 recently ended, as always it was inspiring and lots of great discussions were had. Activision presence was quite strong this year after we shipped Black Ops 3.

If you missed any of our presentations, this post might help. I'll try to keep this updated with links relative to our presentations, as soon as they come online.

Note: for convenience, I've written a summary of the techniques in the text below but keep in mind that, as always, this blog is truly made of personal opinions and observations - which come from my limited, R&D centric point of view.

Call of Duty has always been a lightmapped title, but lightmaps come with a quite large set of issues: large baking times, complexity in representing runtime materials and effects, lighting discontinuities with dynamic objects and the inability of "kit-bash" geometric detail (compenetrating meshes).

Static and dynamic objects, particles, volumetrics:
all lit with the same illumination data!

It's incredible that after all this time, there still isn't in real-time rendering much research on ways of solving the problem of baked irradiance. Naive lightmaps are not enough to generate an image that does look coherent, without leaks and discontinuities.

This new development at Treyarch tackles all these issues at once with a new runtime representation of baked irradiance that works seamlessly with deferred shading and is tightly coupled with prefiltered irradiance cubemaps and new, state of the art, heuristics for parallax-corrected reflections and a baking system that cut down iteration times substantially for artists without having to resort to renderfarms.

Baking via prefiltered cubemaps

Now all our art production happens in a fully WYSIWYG editor, and all the lighting is unified, regardless of the object type (dynamic, static, skinned, particles, volumetrics...).
This is achieved by employing hardware-filtered volumetric textures as the only representation of baked irradiance.

WYSIWYG editor with tools to quickly place volumes in the scene
Artists place irradiance volumes quickly in a level, and author clipping convex volumes to avoid light leaks (note that these have to be authored anyways for reflection probes, so it's not really extra work, and our editor supports very fast workflows for placing volumes and planes), and the authored volumes are usually robust to iterations in the level geometry.

As part of this system, Josiah Manson also further developed his fast GGX pre-integration scheme, now presented at EGSR 2016.

Kevin Myers presented in the "dark hides the light" session our new compression technology for baked shadowmaps. 
Call of Duty had a system for caching shadowmaps since Ghosts, as the new generation of consoles saw a bigger increase in memory than in computation, caching techniques have seen a resurgence. 

This work is a quite radical improvement of our shadowmap caching technology, and allows to fully pre-bake a shadowmaps for entire levels, achieving thousand-fold compression ratios.

In comparison with precomputed voxelized shadows this technique allows for easily recovering the shadowmap depth, which makes it easier to integrate with other effects (i.e. volumetric lighting). It's also fast to traverse. The closest relative to SSTs are the Compressed Multiresolution Hierarchies of Scandolo et al., but our solution was developed independently in parallel, so the data encoding employed is not the same.

To my knowledge the first use of compressed shadowmaps in game production. It also enabled savings in the g-buffer, as we can use the SST to quickly shadow far objects, instead of having to bake a lightmap space occlusion map.

This is the continuation of the subdivision surface research started by Wade on Call of Duty Ghosts, (which to my knowledge is the first videogame to make extensive use of Catmull-Clark subdivision surfaces in real-time).

It's a quite neat technique, which sidesteps a limitation in current hardware tessellation pipelines by passing a variable number of control points to the hull shader via L2 read/writes.

During the development of this technique, Wade also made a nifty thread tracer for NVidia GPUs, which helped debugging issues with work being (erroneously) serialized on the GPU.

This is the only presentation at Siggraph 2016 that is not directly linked with a shipped Call of Duty title.

Natasha and Wade gave a compelling presentation at the open problems in computer graphics course, surveying artists in many companies, even going outside the videogame companies circle we work in.

This is one of my favorite courses at Siggraph, and the only presentation from Activision that I haven't reviewed beforehand, so it was truly interesting for me to watch it live.

Jorge Jimenez presented a new version of his SMAA antialiasing technique, greatly improving both performance and quality (sharpness and stability) with a plethora of tweaks and innovations. The slides also summarize relevant previous published techniques and their image quality tradeoffs.

One of MANY improvements presented

In my opinion, with Jorge's Filmic SMAA, the quest for antialiasing techniques is largely over, and we can say that temporal reprojection has "won".

Not only temporal reprojection often achieves better quality than MSAA when using comparable performance budgets, but it's being easier to integrate into deferred renderers and nowadays it's becoming unavoidable anyways because so many other effects can benefit from the ability to perform temporal supersampling (e.g. shadows, reflections, ambient occlusion...).

Hybrid techniques are still very interesting, and there are probably still improvements possible (and probably Jorge will come yet again on stage in the future to show something amazing in that space), but in general the interest on MSAA reconstruction techniques for edge antialiasing has diminished from being a must-have and a pain point for deferred rendering, to a much less important solution.

MSAA is still a great feature to have in hardware though as it allows to subsample or supersample certain effects and render passes (e.g. particles), but it should be more thought as a way to do mixed resolution than strictly for edge antialiasing.

Jorge, Xian, Adrian and myself worked on extending rendering ambient occlusion state of the art by crafting techniques that are based on modeling the (ray traced) ground truth solution for diffuse and specular occlusion.

Fast, accurate ambient occlusion...

We derived closed-form analytic solutions when possible, and when such models could not be found for ampler generalizations of the problems at hand, we extended the analytic solutions by fitting "residual" functions to the ground truth data, or by employing look-up tables.

...and specular occlusion.

GTAO has already been used in production, as a drop-in replacement of the previous state-of-the-art technique we were employing (HemiAO), yielding better image quality (actually, even better than HBAO, which is a very popular high-quality solution) in the same performance budget (0.5ms).

06 August, 2016

The real-time rendering continuum: a taxonomy

What is forward? What is deferred? Deferred shading? Lighting? Inferred? Texture-space? Forward "+"? When to use what? The taxonomy of real-time rendering pipelines is becoming quite complex, and understanding what can be an "optimal" choice is increasingly hard.

- Forward

So, let's start simple. What do we need to do, in a contemporary real-time rendering system, to draw a mesh? Let's say, something along these lines:

This diagram illustrates schematically what could be going on in a "forward" rendering shader. "Forward" here really just means that most of the computation that goes from geometry to final pixel color happens in a single vertex/pixel shader pair. 
We might update in separate steps some resources the shader uses, like shadow maps, reflection maps and so on, but the main steps, from attribute interpolation to texturing, to shading with analytic lights, happen in a single shader.

From there on, the various flavors of forward rendering only deal with different ways of culling and specializing computation, but the shading pipeline remains the same!

- Culling

Classical multi-pass forward binds lights to meshes one at a time, drawing a mesh multiple times to accumulate pixel radiance on the screen. Lights are bound to a pass as shader constants, and as you typically have only a few light types, you can generate ad-hoc shaders that efficiently deal with each. Specialization is easy, but you pay a price to the multiple passes, especially if you have a lot of overlapping lights and decals.

Single-pass forward is an improvement that foregoes the waste of multi-pass shading (bandwidth, repeated computations between passes and multiple draws) by either using a dynamic branching "uber-shader" capable of handling all the possible lights assigned to an object, or by generating static shader permutations to handle exactly what a given object needs.

The latter can easily lead to an explosion in the number of shaders needed, as now we don't need just one per light type, but per permutation of types and number of lights.
The advantage is that it can be much more efficient, especially if one is willing to split a mesh to exactly divide the triangles which need a specific technique (e.g. triangles with one light from ones that need two or more, triangles that need to blend texture layers, to perform other special effects).

This is Advanced Warfare: ~20k shaders per levels and
aggressive mesh splitting generating tons of draw calls
Forward+ is nothing more than a change in the way some of the data is passed to a dynamic branching style single-pass forward renderer: instead of binding lights per mesh (draw) as shader constants, they are stored in some kind of spatial subdivision structure that the shader can easily access. Typically, screen tiles or frustum voxels ("clustered"), but other structures can be employed as well.

At first, it might sound like a terrible idea. It has all the drawbacks of a dynamic branching uber shader (lots of complexity, no ability to specialize the shaders, register usage bound by the most expensive path in the shader) but with the added penalty of divergent branches (as the lights are not constant in the shader). So, why would you do it?

Light culling in a conventional forward pipeline can be quite effective for static lights, or lights that follow prescribed path, as we can carve geometry influenced by each and specialize. But what if we have lots of dynamic lights? Or lots of small lights? 
At a given point, carving geometry becomes either inefficient (too many small draws) or impossible. In these situations, Forward+ starts to become attractive, especially if one is able to avoid branch divergence by processing lights one at a time.

In the end, though, it's just culling and specialization. How to assign lights to rendering entities. How to avoid having dynamic branching, generic shaders that create inefficiencies.

Once one thinks in these terms, it's easy to see that other configurations could be possible, for example, one might think of assigning lights to mesh chunks and dynamically grouping them into draws, following the ideas of Ubisoft's and Graham Wihlidal's mesh processing pipelines. Or one could assign lights to a per-object grid, or a world space BSP, and so on.

- Splitting the pipeline

Let's look again at the diagram I drew:

Quite literally we can take this "forward shading" pipeline and cut it an arbitrary point, creating two shader passes from it. This is a "deferred" rendering system, some of the computation is deferred to a second pass, and albeit the most employed system (deferred shading) splits material data from lighting/BRDF evaluation, we almost have today a deferred technique for any reasonable choice of splitting point.

Of course, after we do the split, we'll need the two resulting passes to communicate. The pass that is attached to the geometry (object) needs to communicate some data to the pass that is attached to the pixel output. This data is stored by the first pass in a geometry buffer (g-buffer!) and read in the second. 
Typically, we store g-buffers in screen-space, but other choices are possible.

So, why would we want to do such a split? At first, it seems very odd. Instead of having a single pass that does all computation in registers, locally and fast, we force some of the data to be written all the way out to GPU memory, uncompressed, and then read again from memory in the second pass. Why?

Well, the reasons are exactly the same as -every time- we have to decide if to split or not any GPU computation, be it a post-effect, a linear algebra routine or in our case, mesh rendering, the potential advantages are always the same:
  1. Specialization. We might be able to avoid a dynamic branching uber-shader by stopping the computation at a point and launching a number of specialized routines for the second part.
  2. Inter-thread data access. We might need to reuse the data we're writing out. Or access it in patterns that are not possible with the very limited inter-thread communication the GPU allows (and pixel shaders don't/can't give control over what gets packed in a wave, nor have the concept of thread groups! *)
  3. Modifying data. We might want to inject other computation that changes some of the data before launching the second pass.
  4. Re-packing computation. We might want to launch the second pass using a different topology for our waves.
* Note: it would be interesting to think how a "deferred" system could take advantage of hardware tile-based rendering architectures if one could program passes to operate on each tile... Ironically today on tile-based deferred GPUs, deferred shading is usually not employed, because the deal with tile architectures is to avoid reads/writes to a "slow" main memory, so deferred, going out to memory, would negate that. Also one of the issues that deferred can ameliorate in a traditional GPU is overshading, but on TBDR that doesn't matter because by design you don't overshade there even in forward...

- Decision tree

Adding a split point in our pipeline choices makes things incredibly complex, I'd say out of the reach of rendering engineers just manually doing optimal choices. 
We're not dealing anymore just with dynamic versus static lights, or culling granularity, but on how to balance a GPU between ALU, memory, shader resources and different organizations of computation. 

It's very hard to evaluate all these choices in parallel also because typically prototypes won't be really as optimized as possible for any given one, and optimization can change the performance landscape radically. 
Also, these choices are not local, but the can change how you pack and access data in the entire rendering system. What effects you can easily support, how much material variation you can easily support, how to bake precomputed data, what space you have to inject async computation and so on.

Since we started working on "next-gen" consoles, with a heavy emphasis on compute, I've been interested in automatic tuning, something that is quite common in scientific computing, but not at all yet for real-time rendering.

But even autotuning can only realistically be applied when the problem specification is quite rigid and it's unlikely to be successful when we can change the way we structure all the data and effects in a rendering system, to fit a given choice of pipeline (which doesn't mean we can't do better in terms of our abilities to explore pipeline choices...).

- Deferred versus Forward?

So how can we decide what to use when? Well, some rule of thumbs are possible to devise, looking at the data, the computation we wish to operate, and making sure we don't do anything too unreasonable for a given GPU architecture.

The first bound to consider is just the data bandwidth. How much can I read and write, without being bound by reading and writing? Or to be more precise, how much computation do I have to have in order for the memory operations to not be a big bottleneck? For the latency to be well-hidden? 

As an example, right now, on ps4, it's entirely reasonable to do a deferred shading system writing the typical attributes for GGX shading, at 1080p **, with a typical texture layer compositing system and having the g-buffer pass be mostly ALU-bound. 
The same might not be true for a different system at a different resolution, but right now it works, and some titles shipped with some fairly crazy "fat" g-buffers without problems.

Black Ops 3 is a tiled deferred renderer

** Note: without MSAA. In my view, MSAA for geometry antialiasing is not fundamental anymore; It's still a great technique for supersampling/subsampling, but we need temporal antialiasing (Filmic SMAA is great, and ideally you could do both) not only because it can be faster for comparable quality, but because we want to temporally filter all kind of shading effects! 
I'm also not addressing in this the problem of transparencies for a deferred renderer because it's easy to deal with them in F+, sharing the same light lists and most of the shader (just by "connecting" the ends that were cut in the deferred ones)

The second thing to consider is data access. Do you -need to- access lots of data that is parametrized on the surface (especially, vertices)? E.g. The Order's "fat" lightmaps? Then probably decompressing it and pushing it through screen-space buffers is not the best idea. 
Black Ops 3 for example bakes lighting in volume textures and static occlusion in a compressed shadow-map, while Advanced Warfare uses classic uv-mapped lightmaps and occlusion maps.

On the other hand, do you need to access surface data in screen-space effects? Ambient and specular occlusion, reflections (note for example that The Order doesn't do any of these screen-space effects)... Or modify surface data in screen-space, e.g. via mesh-based decals ***? Then you have to write a g-buffer anyways, the only question is when!

*** Note: Nowadays projected or "volumetric" decals are quite popular, and these can be culled in tiles/clusters just like lights, so they work in -any- rendering pipeline. They have their drawbacks though as they can't just precisely follow a surface. Maybe an idea could be to use small volume textures to map projected decals UVs and to mask their area of influence?

The Order 1886 uses F+ and very advanced lightmapping,
foregoing any screen-space shading technique

- Deferred splits and computation

Often, either memory bandwidth makes the choice "easy" for a given platform, or the preference for certain rendering features do (complex lightmaps, mesh decals, screen space effects...). But if they don't then we're left with performance: how to best structure computation.

One big advantage of deferred shading is just in the ability to dispatch specialized shaders per screen region.

The choice of what to specialize and how many passes to for a tile is entirely non-trivial, but at least is possible and does not result in an incredible number of permutations, like in single-pass forward, both because we resolved all the material layering in the g-buffer pass, thus we don't need to specialize both over lights and material features, and because doing multiple passes over a tile is cheaper that doing them over a mesh.

Note that in F+ we can trivially specialize over material features of a given draw, but not at all over lights, and it's even best to make the various lighting paths very uniform (e.g. use the same filtering for shadows) to avoid dynamic branching issues. 
In deferred shading, on the other hand, we can specialize over lights, over texture layer combiners (in the g-buffer pass) and over materials (albeit with worse culling than forward). 

It is true that ypically we're more constrained on the material model as the input data is mostly fixed via the g-buffer encoding, but one can use bit flags to specify what is stored into the MRTs, and with PBR rendering we've seen a sharp decrease in the number of material models needed anyways.

The other advantage is of wave efficiency. In a deferred system, only the g-buffer pass uses the rasterizer, and thus is subject to rasterizer inefficiencies: partial quads on triangle edges, overdraw, partial waves due to small draws.
This is though very hard to quantify in practice, as there are lots of ways to balance computation on a GPU. 

For example, a forward system with very heavy shaders might suffer a lot from overdraw, and require spending time in full depth pre-pass to avoid having any, but the pre-pass might overlap with some async compute, making it virtually free.

- Cutting the pipeline "early"

Recently there have been lots of deferred systems that cut the pipeline "high", near the geometry, before texturing, by writing only the data that that the vertices carry, or even just enough to be able to fetch the vertex data manually (e.g. triangle index and barycentric coordinates, the latter can even be reconstructed from vertices and world position). These approaches create so-called "visibility buffers" instead of g-buffers.

Eidos R&D tested a g-buffer that is used only to improve wave occupancy
and avoid overdraw, not to implement deferred rendering features

These techniques are not aimed at implementing rendering techniques that are different from what maps well to forward, as they still do most of the computation in a single pass. 
What they try to do instead is to minimize the work done in pixel shading, to restructure computation so most of the work is done without the constraints imposed by the rasterizer.

The aim for most of these techniques is:
  1. To write thin g-buffers while still supporting arbitrary material data
  2. To avoid partial quad, partial wave and overdraw penalties
  3. Some also focus on analyzing the geometric data to perform shading at sub-sampled rates
In theory, nobody prevents these techniques to work with more than one split: after the geometry pass a material g-buffer could be created replacing the tile data with the data after texturing.

Compared to forward methods, the main difference is that we reorder computation in a "screen-space" centric way, all the shading is done in CS tiles instead of PS waves of quads.

It avoids partial waves, but at the cost of worse "culling": you have to shade considering all the features needed in a tile, regardless of how many pixels a feature uses, you can't specialize shaders over materials (unless you store some extra bits in the visibility buffer and summarize them per tile).
You also "get rid" of a lot of fixed-function hardware, you can't rely on optimized paths to load vertex and interpolate vertex data, compute derivatives/differentials (which become a real, hard problem! most of these systems just rely on analytic differentials, which don't work for dependent texture reads) and post-transform cache (albeit it would be possible to write from the VS back into the vertex buffer, if really needed)

Vertex and object data access becomes less coherent (as now we access based on screen-space patterns instead of over surfaces), supporting multiple vertex formats also becomes a bit harder (might not matter) and tessellation might or might not be possible (depending on what data you store).

Compared to deferred shading, we have similar trade-offs that we have with standard forward or foward+ versus deferred: we don't have screen-space material data for effects that need it, and we do all the shading in a single pass, thus statically specializing a shader needs to take care of more permutations, but we save on g-buffer space.

Note though that how "thin" the g-buffer is per-se is misleading in terms of bandwidth, because the shading pass uses the g-buffer only as an indirection, the real data is per vertex and per draw, these fetches still need to happen, and might be less coherent than other methods.
And we still have a bit of bandwidth "waste" in the method (similar to how g-buffers do waste reading/writing data that the PS already had) as the index buffers and vertex position data is read twice (through indirection!), and depending on the triangle to pixel ratio, that might be even not insignificant.

- Beyond screen-space...

And last, to complete our taxonomy, there has been recently some renderers that decided to split computation storing information in uv-space textures, instead of screen-space. 

These ideas are similar to the early idea of "surface caching" employed by Quake and might follow quite "naturally" if one has already a unique parametrization everywhere in the world.

These systems are very attractive for subsampling computation, both spatially and temporally, as the texture data is not linked to a specific frame and rasterized samples.

If the texture layering is cached, then the scheme is similar to a g-buffer deferred system, just storing the g-buffer in texture space instead of screen space, and it can be coupled with F+ or other deferred schemes that "split early" to reduce the complexity of the shading pass (as the texture layering has already been done in specialized shaders).

If the final shaded results are stored, the decoupled shading rate can also be used as a mean of improving shading stability: even without supersampling aliasing doesn't produce shimmering as the samples never move, and texture sampling naturally "blurs" a bit the results.

Decoupling visibility from shading rate. A good idea.

Caching computation is always very attractive, so these techniques are certainly promising, and the tradeoffs are easy to understand (even if they might not be easy to quantify!). How much of the cache is invalidated at any given time? At which granularity does it need to be computed (and how much waste there is due to it)? How much memory does the cache need?

Fight Night Champion computed diffuse lighting in texture space,
all the fine skin details come only from the specular layer.

- Conclusions???

As I said, it's hard to make predictions and it's hard to say that one method is absolutely better than another, even in quite specific scenarios.

But if I had to go out on a limb, I'd say that right now, for this generation of consoles the following applies:
  • "Vanilla" deferred shading works fine and supports lots of nice rendering features. 
    • In theory, it's not the most efficient rendering technique, simply from the standpoint that it spends lots of energy pushing data in and out memory...
    • But for now it works, and it will likely scale well to 2k and probably even 4k or near 4k resolutions, using reasonably thin buffers.
  • Deferred shading executes well enough in the following important aspects, that probably need to be addressed by any shading technique:
    • The ability to specialize shaders, even if we have architectures with good dynamic branching capabilities (and moving data from vgpr to sgpr on GCN), is quite important and saves a lot of headaches (of trying to fit every feature needed in a single, fast ubershader).
    • Separating and possibly caching or precomputing (most of) texture compositing is important. Very high frequency tiled detail layers will still need to be composited in screen-space.
    • Ameliorating issues with overdraw and small triangles/draws.
  • On top of these, deferred supports well a number of screen-space rendering features that are popular nowadays.
  • Forward+ can be made fast and it works best when lots of surface data (vertex & texture...) is needed.
    • Different material models are probably not a huge concern (LODs might be more attractive, actually), and deferred shading can be specialized over materials as well, with some effort (and worse culling).
    • Forward undeniably will scale better with resolution, but might have a slower "baseline" (e.g. 1080p)
    • Mapping data to surfaces (e.g. lightmaps, occlusion cones...) allows for cheap and high-quality bakes, but it doesn't work on moving objects, particles and so on, so it's usually a compromise: it has better quality for static meshes, but it lacks the uniformity of volumetric bakes.
  • Single pass forward, when done properly, can still very, very fast!
    • Especially in games that don't have too many small triangles and don't have many small or moving lights.
    • That's still a fairly large proportion of games! Lots of games are in daylight, or anyhow in settings where there aren't many overlapping lights! It is not simple to optimize though.
  • Volumetric data structures are here and going to stay, we'll probably see them evolve in something more adaptive than the simple voxel grids that we use today.
  • Caching is certainly interesting, especially when it comes to flattening texture layers (which is quite common, especially for terrain). 
    • Caching shading is a "natural" extension, the tradeoffs there are still unproven, but once one has the option of working in texture-space it's hard not to imagine that there isn't anything of the shading computations that could be meaningfully cached there...
  • Visibility buffers
    • If g-buffers passes are not bandwidth or ROP/export bound (writing the data), the benefit of "earlier" splits is questionable. But these techniques are -very- interesting, and might even be used in hybrid g-buffer/attribute buffer renderers.
    • The general idea of using deferred methods to cluster pixels via similarity and subsample shading is very interesting... 
    • The same applies to trying to pack waves without resorting to predetermined screen-space tiles (e.g. via stream compaction, which the "old" stencil volume deferred methods did automatically via the early-stencil hardware). None of these have been proven in production so far.
  • It would be great to see more research on hybrid renderers in general
    • Shaders can be written in a "unified" fashion, the splits can be largely automatic
    • Deferred shading and F+ share the same lighting representation!
    • A rendering engine could draw using different techniques based on heuristics
  • On the other hand, there has been recently lots of work on "GPU driven pipelines", where most of the draw dispatch work (and draw culling) is done on the GPU.
    • These pipelines favor very uniform draws (no per-draw shader specialization)
    • This might be though entirely a limitation of current APIs...