Photorealistic Character

An overview of the Photoreal Character Bust showcase.

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Digital Humans project example from the Epic Games Launcher in the Learn

The purpose of this showcase is to demonstrate the use of high-quality character shader techniques, similarly to those used on characters from Epic's MOBA game Paragon. To view this showcase, simply open the project and press Play In Editor to see the cinematic pan-around.

For more information on the tech used to produce this character, please refer to this Unreal Engine Livestream - Tech & Techniques Behind Creating the Characters for Paragon .

Skin Shading

The character's skin is created through the use of UE4's Subsurface Profile shading model .


Note the use of Material Functions to set up the base for the skin Material. This is done as a reusable authoring approach to creating Materials for Paragon. In this way, artists can standardize approaches to generating certain types of surfaces, knowing that a fundamental change to a single Function will update all instances where that Function is being used.

Skin Shader Textures

The textures used on the character's skin are all at 4K resolution and were originally produced from facial scans of the actor. The textures were then cleaned up and tweaked by artists at Epic. This skin setup utilizes five total texture maps: diffuse, roughness, specularity, scatter, and normal.






The diffuse map supplies the Base Color for the Material. At 4K, you can see the tiny capillaries just underneath the surface. Any darkening of wrinkles will accentuate the texture supplied by the normal map. ( UE4_Demo_Head_D )



The roughness map is stored within the alpha channel of the diffuse texture. This is a common technique used to minimize the amount of textures in use. Note that the roughness increases within pores and wrinkles. This causes those areas to appear less shiny, accentuating the look of depth provided by the diffuse and normal map. Also note that the hair texture on the head is pushed out to fully rough (1.0) this prevents any stray specular highlights from the scalp, which will give a much more significant sense of depth to the hair. ( UE4_Demo_Head_D )



The specular map scales the amount of specular highlight visible across the surface of the skin. It is important to note that the default value for specularity is 0.5. This map boosts specularity at areas where the skin may be stretched a bit tighter, and dampens it in areas where we don't want to see reflection, such as the center of pores and within wrinkles. ( CH2_exp04_merged_spec_f_FC_FINAL )



The scatter map controls how much light is going to be scattered through the surface of the skin. Areas that are dark will exhibit very little scatter, such as the cheeks, while lighter areas will have higher amounts of perceived scatter, such as the nose and ears. The color of the scatter is managed by the Subsurface Profile asset. ( UE4_Demo_Head_BackScatter )



The normal map works as expected in typical material setups, supplying the tactile texture to the surface by perturbing pixel normals. There is nothing out of the ordinary in its setup for this example. ( UE4_Demo_Head__normals )

Hair Shading

Hair shading is handled by way of UE4's Hair shader model. This shader is physically based shading model based on research by Eugene d'Eon, Steve Marschner and Johannes Hanika and currently used by Weta Digital . The shader approximates light's reflection from the surface of the hair with anisotropic specularity, as well as its refraction through it and its scatter throughout multiple strands.

To utilize the UE4 Hair shader, set the Shading Model property of your Material to Hair .


Hair and Specularity

In the real world, hair tends to have multiple specular highlights: one representing the color of the light and another that is a mix of hair color and light color. For sake of this document, we will refer to these as primary and secondary specular highlights. The Hair shader approximates the same effects with highly realistic results.


  1. The lighter hair represents the primary specular highlight. 2. The brighter red hair represents the secondary specular highlight.

The approximation algorithm used in UE4's hair shader creates these effects in a similar manner to how they are made in the real world. As light strikes the surface of a hair follicle, it does not simply bounce off. Hair is translucent, allowing some light to pass through it, to potentially bounce around inside it, then exit. The hair shader approximates this with three possible paths for light to travel as it interacts with hair, as shown in the animated GIF diagram below:


Cross section of single hair follicle showing how the hair shader approximates interaction with light, demonstrating the three primary types of paths light will take. See the table below for descriptions of each part of the process.




The growth (root to tip) direction of the hair follicle.


Reflection-only path, with light bouncing off the surface of the hair. This produces the primary specular highlight.


Transmission-transmission path, in which light passes into the hair follicle and back out the other side. This is how light scatters within a volume of hair.


Transmission-reflection-transmission path, in which light enters the hair follicle, reflects off the inside boundary of the surface, and then exits . This produces the secondary specular highlight.

As shown in the diagram above, a strand of hair is not a perfect cylinder or tube. In actuality, hair appears more as a series of stacked cones. This means light bouncing off the surface of hair will be scattered differently than it would if hair were perfectly smooth. Further, because each strand of hair is generally pointing in a different direction, the specular highlight will not be unified, but will be independently placed based on the direction the hair is pointing. This is often referred to as anisotropic specularity, which is also supported by the UE4 hair shader.

Hair and Transparency

The Hair Shader uses the Masked blend mode instead of translucency. However, Masked transparency produces a binary result - surfaces are either fully opaque or fully transparent. A noisy dither pattern is constantly moved across the surface, becoming more dense in areas that need to be more solid. Dither is used as a way to blend Masked transparency, but only works when TemporalAA is active.

Without TemporalAA

With TemporalAA

Using an animated dither with TemporalAA requires several frames to resolve the blend. This can lead to some artifacting on hair while it is in motion. This is an expected side effect of the technique.

Edge Masking


Though not specifically part of the shader itself, it is worth noting that the Material used on the example character's hair - as well as the other characters of Epic's game Paragon - uses what is called an "Edge Mask" to fade the hair away as it becomes edge-on to the camera. Since hair is rendered as a series of planes - see Hair and Geometry below - it is likely that from certain camera angles, one would see the edge of each sheet, breaking the hair effect.

To help alleviate this problem, the Material calculates the camera's vector against the vertex normal such that as the surface turns perpendicularly away from the camera, it will also fade away to complete transparency. The other side of this approach, however, is that in doing so it is possible that the hair shader may show more of the scalp. This is also why many characters with thick heads of hair will often have a hair texture painted on the scalp, as seen in the image below.


It should also be pointed out that this effect is tied to a Quality Switch node, so that on lower-powered platforms it can easily be switched off to trade back some shader performance. As always, it's best to test on target platform.

Hair Authoring

Creating hair using the techniques shown in this showcase requires a bit of understanding of how Epic constructed this character's hair.

Hair Geometry

Hair geometry using UE4's hair shader is generally going to be constructed using a series of non-planar sheet surfaces, which is a common approach in many real-time hair solutions. These can be authored in the DCC app of your choice.

While there are no hard and fast rules for the detail of your hair geometry, it should be noted that this character uses approximately 800 individual hair sheets, with a total of approximately 18,000 triangles. Also note that the hair Material is set to be two-sided in the main Material node's properties.


Hair Textures

In this use of the UE4 Hair shader, the final result is driven by five primary textures: Diffuse , Alpha , Root , Depth , and a unique-per-strand ID texture. At Epic, these textures are typically generated using 3ds Max's Hair system, projecting the simulated hair results onto a piece of geometry. However, there are many available options for similar results.






The Diffuse texture is precisely what one might expect in that it supplies the primary diffuse - or base - color of the hair itself. It is sometimes desirable to leave this texture uncolored and drive its color via parameters, especially in those cases where a character's hair may take on many different colors. ( UE4_Demo_Hair_D )



The Alpha texture supplies the areas of opacity for the hair, hiding geometry outside the body of strands. ( UE4_Demo_Hair_A )



The Root texture provides a mask which is used to change the color of the hair from the root to the tip, useful for lightening or darkening hair along its length. ( UE4_Demo_Hair_Roots )



The Depth texture is used by Pixel Depth offset to give the illusion of pushing the hair deeper into the hair volume. It can also be used as a basis to change color or shading values for hair at different depths, such as reducing overall specularity as hair falls further toward the scalp. ( UE4_Demo_Hair_Depth )


Unique ID

The Unique ID texture simply provides a unique 0 to 1 (black to white) value for each strand of hair on a given piece of hair geometry. This is used to provide subtle variation within the hair itself. ( UE4_Demo_Hair_ID )

Hair Shader Properties

When using the Hair Shader you will notice some new properties available on the main Material node: Scatter , Tangent , and Backlit .


At the time of this writing (4.13), the Backlit property only exists as a part of an early version of the shader. Connections to it are not used internally by the Hair shader and the property can therefore be ignored.


One of the primary reasons we refer to the Hair shader as an approximation , rather than a simulation , is that it is not actually simulating every individual strand of hair, nor is it simulating perfectly accurate lighting behavior. In the real world, as light bounces off of and transmits through follicles of hair, it will often encounter other strands of hair, repeating the same process potentially many times in succession. At this time there is no computing system capable of accurately producing the effects of such a simulation in realtime.

Nevertheless, the way in which light scatters through a body of hair is still crucial to how realistic that hair appears to be, in a game just as much as in the real world. To control this, the Hair shader provides the Scatter property, which replaces Metallic on your primary shader node and is limited to values between 0.0 and 1.0. Scatter controls how much light passes through the entire body of your character's hair, as if it were a single surface.

An important point to note about Scatter is that it will tend to be higher for lighter colored hair and darker for darker hair. This follows the physical rules of the natural world, as darker hair will tend to absorb more light. In practical terms, if you are trying to create a blonde character, you will find that changing the diffuse texture or color is not enough; you will also have to increase the Scatter value as well.

Scatter value of 0.0

Scatter value of 1.0

In this example the Root and Tip colors were set to a pale blonde color, and Random Variation was set to 0.0. Scatter was then used to adjust how much light was approximated to move through the hair. This illustrates how various tones of hair can be generated just by changing the Scatter value.


The Tangent property replaces the Normal property on the Hair shader. The tangent is calculated as a vector that runs parallel to each strand of hair, pointed back toward the root. The purpose of the Tangent property is to aid in proper anisotropic specularity. If you are unfamiliar, anisotropic specularity is what happens when light bounces off a micro-grooved surface, such as brushed metal.


The sphere on the left is anisotropically shaded, while the one on the right is not. Notice how the anisotropic specular highlight stretches along the surface.

The Tangent property is used primarily as a vector to control the direction of that the anisotropic highlight will stretch.


In this image the yellow line represents the tangent along a strand of hair, pointing back toward the root.

In the example character's hair shader, this vector is given a random offset in the Z-Axis between 0.3 and -0.3, using the Unique ID texture. This produces a vector which has a random direction within an arc, and aids in providing variation within the anisotropic specular highlights such as you would see in clusters of real hair.

Tangents can be mapped in one of two ways: automatically or with the help of a flow map. The automatic method simply requires that that the textures for each sheet of hair be oriented such that the root is toward the top and the tips are toward the bottom. So long as your hair is short, and no sheets are bending around and twisting too much, this approach is adequate. This is the method used on the example character's hair.

Flow Maps for Tangency

The other method requires the creation of a flow map. This is useful if your character's hair is long and is bending and needs to appear to bend and curl more than the actual geometry does, or if the individual texture portions for the hair are oriented in different ways (not top-to-bottom as described above). The flow map will represent the direction the hair is moving in tangent space, or along the surface. Within the the Photoreal Character Bust project, you can find an unused flow map named T_Hair_Flow . Below is a comparison of that flowmap and the result of the specularity.

Final Result

Flow Map Texturing

Here you can see how the flow map is textured along the surface of Sparrow's hair. Note that the flowmap is only in use on some of the hair sheets, not the entire body of hair. Notice how different values along the flow map subtly shift the specularity along the hair.

Using Pixel Depth Offset with the Hair Shader

Pixel Depth Offset (PDO) is not a property unique to the Hair shader. In layman's terms, PDO causes pixels to look recessed away from the camera, creating an artificial sense of depth along the surface. Since hair is made up of simple sheets of geometry, as explained in Hair and Geometry below, the use of PDO can provide a tangible sense of depth to the hair shape as a whole. It also breaks up the intersection point where a plane of hair geometry contacts the scalp, as shown below.

Without Pixel Depth Offset

With Pixel Depth Offset

Eye Shading


Eyes are often referred to as "the windows to the soul." Few aspects of a character have as much influence on the viewer's perception of a character as a real person as that character's eyes. The Eye shader in UE4 is designed to bring realistic rendering of an eye surface, exposing artistic control over each of the biological parts of the eye itself.

very strong dependencies between the shader code, the Material, the shape of the geometry, and the geometry's UV layout. Building an eye from scratch using this shader is not recommended without extensive experience in shader development. To that end, we strongly recommend, for those creating realistic humanoid eyes, that you extract the eye geometry from this example and use the eye Material as-is


Eye Biology

In order to fully understand the features of the eye, it is best to know a little bit of eye biology. Each of the parts you see here are represented in this eye setup, and all can be modified in some way using the exposed parameters in the Material Instance applied to the example character's eyes ( MI_EyeRefractive_Bust ).

Here is a quick refresher:







The sclera is also known as the "white of the eye." This area of the eye is generally very wet and has a slight amount of tactile texture.



The limbus is the dark ring that is present between the iris and the sclera. It is more dominant in some eyes than others, and will tend to fade away when viewed from edge-on.



The iris is the ring of color around the center of the eye. When one is said to have "green" eyes, it is because their iris is predominantly green. In a real eye, the iris is a ring of muscle-like fibers that expand and contract, allowing more light into - or closing light out of - the pupil. It is also worth noting that in the real world, the iris is actually more of a disc or cone shape, and does not bulge outward with the rest of the eye.



The pupil is the dark spot at the center of the eye. It is the hole through which light passes so it can be picked up by the rods and cones of the retina.



The cornea is the clear, fluid-filled dome that rests over the surface of the iris.

Refraction within the Eye - Then and Now

Because the eyeball is filled with fluid, it is given to refracting any light that passes through it. This can be seen in the real world when looking at an eye from multiple angles. The iris and pupil will be distorted by refraction as they are viewed through the cornea. Traditional approaches to solving this for games and film was to create two separate eye surfaces: one that supplied the sclera, iris, and pupil; and another surface on top that supplied the cornea and overall wetness of the eye. This allowed for refraction as the underlying surface was viewed through the wet layer shell. Such an approach was used in Epic's A Boy and His Kite tech demo on the boy's eyes. The diagram below shows a representation of the two surfaces.


Using our new Eye shader, however, an even more realistic effect can be achieved with a single surface . The refraction of light through the surface of the cornea is now handled entirely within the shader, alleviating the need for underlying geometry. You can experiment with this yourself by opening the MI_EyeRefractive_Bust Material Instance and adjusting the Refraction On/Off property.

Without Refraction|(Refraction On/Off at 0.0)

With Refraction|(Refraction On/Off at 1.0)

Eye Shader Parameters

Due to the complexity of the eye shader and our recommendation that you use it as-is, we have included a breakdown of the artistic parameters that are built into the Material. The following are the eye shader parameters that can be tweaked from within MI_EyeRefractive_Bust Material Instance Constant. Wherever possible, we will also include suggested parameter ranges.




Suggested Value Range

Static Switch Parameter Values


This property is intended to adjust the refraction properties of the shader based on whether or not the eyeball geometry uses a physically modeled bulge for the cornea.


Vector Parameter Values

Sclera inner color

This is the color of the sclera where it meets the iris.


Sclera outer color

This is the color of the sclera at the outer edge of the eye.



This controls how much the Secondary Environment is visible on the surface of the eye.

0.00 - 0.03


Since the Secondary Environment is a faked reflection, it must be manually rotated around the eye. This property controls the axis about which it will rotate.

0.0, 0.0, 1.0 Z-Axis

Scalar Parameter Values

Depth Scale

This controls the depth of the refraction of the iris underneath the cornea.


Flatten Normal

This value controls how much flattening of the eye's normal map is taking place, focused particularly on the sclera.

0.9 - 1.1


Index of refraction of the fluids underneath the cornea. Controls how much refraction takes place.


Iris Concavity Power

Used alongside Iris Concavity Scale to control the shape and amount of light caustics that are calculated on the surface of the iris as light passes through the cornea. This will generally only be visible in an actual lit scene, and can be difficult to visualize within the Material Instance Editor.

0.2 - 0.3

Iris Concavity Scale

Used alongside Iris Concavity Power to control the shape and amount of light caustics that are calculated on the surface of the iris as light passes through the cornea. This will generally only be visible in an actual lit scene, and can be difficult to visualize within the Material Instance Editor.

0.07 - 0.15

Iris UV Radius

Controls the overall size of the iris on the eyeball.

0.14 - 0.15

Iris Brightness

Controls the brightness of the iris.

Depends on iris color

Iris Roughness

This value drives how shininess of the cornea, the surface directly over the iris.

0.0 - 0.1

Limbus Dark Scale

Controls the size of the darkening ring of the limbus.

2.0 - 2.15

Limbus Pow

Controls the overall darkening of the limbus area. Overdriven values will darken the entire corneal area.

15.0 - 22.0

Limbus UV Width Color

Controls the sample size for the limbus, or how much of the eye surface will be alloted for showing the limbus. This is a fairly delicate setting and should be adjusted with care.

0.025 - 0.040

Limbus UV Width Shading

Controls how much light will affect the shading of the limbus. Very delicate setting, adjust with care.

0.040 - 0.050

Normal UV Scale

Controls the scale of the normal map texture used across the surface of the eye.

1.8 - 2.6

Pupil Scale

Controls the size of the pupil. This is the setting you would use to dilate the eyes.

0.5 - 1.0

Refraction On/Off

Blends between refracting and non-refracting versions of the shader.


Scale By Center

Adjusts the scale of the entire iris/pupil area from its center.

0.8 - 1.2

Sclera Brightness

Controls the brightness of the sclera, or white of the eye.

0.9 - 1.3

Sclera Roughness

Controls the Material Roughness value of the sclera

0.0 - 0.1

Secondary Env Rotation

This rotates the secondary environment cubemap about the axis defined using the SecondaryEnvRotationAxis property.


Shadow Hardness

Controls the sharpness of the blend between the sclera inner and outer color. Used with Shadow Radius to help drive shading across the surface of the sclera, approximating the effect of the eyelid casting subsurface scattered shadows across the surface of the eyeball.

0.1 - 0.2

Shadow Radius

Controls the size of the blend between the inner and outer colors of the sclera. Used with Shadow Hardness.

0.5 - 0.85

Specularity Iris

Controls specularity level across the cornea (iris and pupil).

0.25 - 0.8

Specularity Sclera

Controls the specularity level across the sclera.

0.25 - 0.8


Controls the visibility of veins in the eye, as provided by the Sclera Color Map.

Depends on Sclera Color Map and desired vein amount.

Texture Parameter Values

Iris Color

See Eye Textures below.


Normal Map

See Eye Textures below.


Sclera Color

See Eye Textures below.


Secondary Env

This is a cubemap used as a secondary reflection environment. See Eye Shader Secondary Environment below.


Eye Shader Secondary Environment

The Secondary Environment is a part of the eye shader that provides a faked reflection map to the surface of the eye. You can provide a texture for it using the SecondaryEnv ParamCube in the shader and then controlled with the other SecondaryEnv properties. This can be useful for dramatic closeups of the eye when you want to be able to see specific reflections, such as the immediate environment, another character, etc.

Without Secondary Environment|(SecondaryEnvBalance at 0.0)

With Secondary Environment|(SecondaryEnvBalance at 0.03)

Eye Authoring

Earlier in this section we provided a warning that there are strong interdependencies between the code of the Eye shader, the setup of the material, and the geometry of the eye mesh. The following is a high-level overview of what makes the eye setup so particular, which will be useful if you should try replacing the geometry with your own eye mesh for your characters.

When building your own eyes, we strongly recommend that you start using the actual eye geometry and Material provided in this example. This would involve As such, most of the information provided here will be based upon that assumption.


Shape and UV Layout

Much like the human eye of the real world, the eye mesh is not modeled to be perfectly spherical. Rather, it has a distinct dome at the front to represent the cornea. This gives the eye almost an egg shape.


In this image you can see the geometry of the eye viewed from the side in Maya. Note the raised area of the cornea at the front.

The UV layout for the eye is also critical, as it is from this that the proportions of each eye texture are produced. Fortunately, the UV layout that works best with the Eye shader is relatively basic: a planar projection along the front axis of the eye. Inclusion of backfaces is not extremely important (since they'll be behind the eye anyway), which can be seen on the the example character.

The UV layout will look like this:


Notice that the UV layout is centered on the 0-1 space and that the projection looks directly into the cornea.

Eye Textures

Many of the textures you'll create for your eyes will be based on the UV layout created above, with the exception of the iris map. The list of primary editable textures includes:





Sclera Map

The sclera map controls the colors of the eye whites, as well as the vein and tissue color that will be present at the edges of the eye. If you wanted your character to be able to have bloodshot eyes, for example, this is the texture you would modify. ( UE4_Demo_Eye_Sclera_Color )


Mid Plane Displacement Map

The mid plane displacement map is used to lock down a plane that cuts through the center of the eye, and is used as a basis for offsetting the depth of the iris. ( EyeMidPlaneDisplacement_Example )


Normal Map

The normal map does the same job as normal maps in all shaders - it supplies tactile texture variation. In the case of the the example character eye setup, it produces tiny lumps and bumps along the wet surface of the eye. ( T_Eye_Wet_Normal )


Tangent Map

The tangent map is used to control the direction the surface is flowing in tangent space. In the case of the example character's eye setup, this is used to accentuate the change in direction where the cornea meets the sclera. ( EYE_NORMALS.EYE_NORMALS )


Iris Map

The iris texture is unique in that it does not match the UV layout. Instead, the texture fills the entirety of the resolution. UVs and alpha masks are employed to control the overall iris size, as well as the size of the pupil. If making your own iris maps, try to keep the pupil size reasonably close to the proportions in the supplied texture. ( UE4_Demo_Eye_Iris )

not fed directly into the Normal Map input. Rather, it is connected to a Tangent Output node, which must be created separately, as seen in the master material M_HairSheet_Master2 TangentOutput.png

Eye Ambient Occlusion

The final part of the eye setup for the example character is the use of a translucent helper surface to to simulate ambient occlusion around the eye. In the real world - wherever your eye comes in contact with other tissues such as the eyelid or the tear duct - you will see very soft shadowing. The softness is due to the fact that the eye itself is translucent; light will scatter through it. To help simulate this realistically, we have placed a sheet of geometry that covers the eye and provides approximated ambient occlusion, creating a richer degree of realism across the eye.

The Material applied to this sheet is named MI_Eye_Occlusion_Bust and can be found in Element 3 of the the example character model.

If authoring your own content for character eyes, you will very likely need to build this piece of geometry yourself. Note that it should be made to fit the area of the open eyelid and that its UVs should cleanly fill the 0 to 1 UV space in your 3D modeling app.


This image shows the ambient occlusion sheet geometry in Maya, without the geometry of the face. The border edge of the sheet will perfectly fill the opening of the eyelid.

Without AO Sheet

With AO Sheet

Special Thanks

Special thanks to Eugene d'Eon, Steve Marschner and Johannes Hanika for releasing their work The importance of sampling for physically-based hair fiber models , upon which some of the work of UE4's hair shader is based.

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