Screenspace Volumetric Shadowing

Let’s get this out of the way first, you can download a demo of the effect for Windows and Mac here!

So recently I decided to learn a little more about the Unity engine’s rendering pipeline. I had a pretty good high-level idea, but the actual stages of the process were a mystery to me. “…then it does lighting…” is not necessarily a useful level of granularity.  After a week with the documentation, and the fabulous Frame Debugger added in Unity 5, I’m fairly confident in my understanding of some of the nitty-gritty of shading.

“What do we gain from knowing this? I drop a few lights in my scene and it all works just fine!” – well, with a solid understanding of the rendering and shading pipeline, it becomes much easier to extend the process of “just dropping lights in a scene” for much greater effect. This week, I wrote a screen-space volumetric shadowing effect using CommandBuffers and a few fancy shader programs.


The effect is fairly subtle, but atmospheric scattering (the reflection of light off of tiny particles suspended in the air) is fairly important. It helps to contribute a sense of space to a scene, helps to clue the brain in on where light-sources are, and can be used to hint at the mood of a scene. Is it early morning in a dense fog, or a clear summer evening?

Now the more eagle-eyed among you will notice that I didn’t implement atmospheric scattering. This effect is actually an attempt at the opposite, estimating the thickness of shadows in the scene, and darkening areas to negate the scattering approximation of a uniform fog. Tradiational “Distance Fog” is meant to simulate light-scattering in a scene, blending objects in the distance into a uniform medium color. This effect is extremely cheap to compute, and fairly well established. I intended my shadowing system to be applied on top of existing art, and so a complete lighting overhaul was impossible as it would require designers and artists to step through a scene and update every light they’ve placed. It makes very little sense in a scene like the one above, where there isn’t any fog, but when thrown into a scene with fog and lighting, it can look quite nice.


SSVS with traditional “distance fog”

My approximation clearly isn’t “correct” to real-world lighting. Shadows are the lack of light behind an occluder, not a painted-over darkness multiplied over the background, but as a first draft, it looks quite nice.

So let’s look at how this was done, and what I intend to do in the future.

Technical Explanation

Unity 5.3 introduced something called Graphics CommandBuffers. These are essentially a hook into the rendering pipeline in the form of queues of rendering instructions you can inject at various points. When my scene is loaded, I would initialize and attach a CommandBuffer to “CameraEvent.BeforeLighting” for example, and whatever commands are in that buffer would be executed every time the camera prepares to render lighting. When you’re finished, and don’t want your code to be called again, you remove it from the pipeline, and it stops being executed.

My shadowing effect attaches a minimum of four such buffers, listed here in order of execution during a frame.

  1. CameraEvent.BeforeLighting
  2. LightEvent.AfterShadowMap (for each scene light)
  3. LightEvent.AfterScreenspaceMask (for each scene light)
  4. CameraEvent.BeforeImageEffects

1) CameraEvent.BeforeLighting

CommandBuffers attached to this event are executed every frame before any lighting calculations take place.

The camera rendering the scene creates a new render target, called the “shadowBuffer” when it’s initialized, which will contain the added effects of all the lights in our scene. Every frame before any lighting takes place, this buffer is cleared to a white color. That’s the only thing done in the “beforeLighting” stage, but it’s critical to the effect working. If the buffer weren’t cleared, then the effects of the previous frame would be blended into the next, and you’d quickly get a muddy mess…

2) LightEvent.AfterShadowMap


A cascaded shadowmap resulting from the shadowmap pass on a Directional Light. Color represents distance from the light source.

CommandBuffers attached to this event are executed every time a shadowmap is rendered for a particular light. Excuse my egregious use of bold, but this was one of the most critical parts of the effect, and seems to cause an extreme amount of confusion online (The working code has been reported as a bug in Unity at least 3 times now).

This means that whenever a shadowmap is rendered for a light for any reason (including the Scene View Camera in the Unity Editor!), your CommandBuffer will be called.

In this stage of the rendering pipeline, I bind the currently active render target to a global shader property. Immediately before this stage in the pipeline, the shadowmaps for the light were being rendered, so they should still be the active render target. By binding them to a shader property, I allow future stages in the pipeline to access them!

For most lights, this is all that happens and we could just render our effect here, but “directional lights” are a special case. They render screen-space masks which are sampled by the shading stage of the deferred or forward pipeline. This allows for more complex shadow filtering, and eliminates the texture lookup that might have been performed on occluded fragments. The proper transformations performed by the engine to convert world-space positions to light-space positions aren’t yet initialized for Directional Lights at this stage in the pipeline, which brings us to…

3) LightEvent.BeforeScreenspaceMask


The results of the raymarch shadow accumulation pass. Darker areas counted more shadowed samples.

Commands attached to this event will be executed every time a directional light is preparing to build a screenspace shadow mask as described above. It’s at this stage that Unity populates all of the transformation matrices to convert back and forth between world-space and light-space, which we coincidentally need. This is where the actual meat of the effect take place.

When this happens, the attached CommandBuffer instructs the light to render a pass into the camera’s shadowBuffer we allocated and cleared earlier. During this pass, a simple raymarch is performed in screen-space, essentially stepping through the world and checking whether or not a sample point in 3D space is in shadow or not. Here, the raymarch samples the shadowmap bound in step 2, and uses the transformation matrices bound in step 3, before counting up the number of sample points that were in shadow, and rendering that as a color (black for all shadows, white for none) into the camera’s shadowBuffer. This final color is actually multiplied with the color already in the buffer, so if two shadows overlap, they will both darken the pixels in the buffer, rather than over-writing eachother. (A more technically correct solution would be to take the minimum value of the two samples, rather than multiplying them, but then I couldn’t take advantage of hardware blend-modes, and would need a separate pass).

4) CameraEvent.BeforeImageEffects

Now for the last stage in the effect. Raymarching is quite expensive, so most of the time, the previous pass is performed at a lower resolution of 1/2, 1/4, or even 1/8. Before the user sees it, we need to blow it back up to fullscreen! Notice that there’s also quite a bit of noise in the raw raymarch data. This is because I used a dithered sampling scheme to better capture high-resolution data. We don’t want any of that in the final composite, so first, we perform a two step Gaussian blur on the low resolution raymarch data. This will effectively soften the image, and smooth out noise. Normally this isn’t a great idea because it removes high-frequency data, but because shadows are relatively “soft” anyway, it works quite well in this case. The blur also takes into account the depth of the scene, and won’t blur together two pixels if their depths are extremely different. This is useful for preserving hard edges where two surfaces meet, or between a background object and a foreground object.

Lastly, we perform a bilateral upsample back to full resolution. This is pretty much a textbook technique now, but it’s still quite effective!

5?) Considerations

There are a few considerations that are very important here. First, CommandBuffers aren’t executed inline with the rest of your scripts, they’re executed separately in the rendering pipeline. Second, when you bind a commandBuffer to an event, it will be executed every time that event occurs. This can cause issues with the Scene View Camera in the editor. It is only used for setting up your scene, but it actually triggers Light Events too!

I worked around this by adding an “OnPreRender” callback to my cameras, which re-build the commands in the Light command buffers before every frame, and then another in “OnPostRender” which tears them all down. This is absolutely critical because otherwise, the scene camera, and other cameras you may not want rendering your effects will trigger them, wasting precious resources and sometimes putting data where you don’t think it will go (For example, the scene camera triggered the same CommandBuffer as the game camera, causing the scene’s shadows to be rendered into the shadowBuffer, which caused all sorts of problems!)

As long as you think critically about what you’re actually instructing the engine to do, this shouldn’t be too bad, but I lost too many hours to this sort of issue :\

Wrapping Up

And that’s about it! I hope this gave at least some high-level insight into how you could use CommandBuffers for new effects!

In the future, I’d like to extend this to a complete volumetric lighting system, rather than just a simple shadowing demo, but for now I’m quite happy with the result!

If you want to check it out for yourself, you can download a demo here!

One response to “Screenspace Volumetric Shadowing

  1. Brilliant post and very informative. Thanks for taking the time to write it. Would have loved to see code examples of the different aspects.
    Thanks again and keep up the great work.


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