Mesh Drawing Pipeline

Product documentation including reference and guides for Unreal Engine 4

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The information contained in this page is targeted at programmers who want to add custom mesh passes, or want to understand Unreal Engine 4's (UE4) mesh drawing performance characteristics.

The Mesh Drawing Pipeline is based around a concept of retained mode, where all scene draws are prepared in advance instead of building them every frame. It also features aggressive caching and draw call merging in order to exploit properties of Static Meshes which change infrequently and can be reused across frames.

MeshPipelineOverview_1.png

The journey of a draw.

Mesh rendering starts from FPrimitiveSceneProxy, which is the render thread representation for the game thread's UPrimitiveComponent. FPrimitiveSceneProxy is responsible for submitting FMeshBatch's to the renderer through the callbacks to GetDynamicMeshElements and DrawStaticElements.

FMeshBatch decouples the FPrimitiveSceneProxy implementation (user code) from mesh passes (private renderer module). It contains everything the pass needs to figure out final shader bindings and render state, so the proxy never knows what passes it will be rendered in. 

The next step is to convert FMeshBatch into a mesh pass specific FMeshDrawCommand. FMeshDrawCommand is an interface between FMeshBatch and the RHI. It’s a fully stateless draw description that stores everything that the RHI needs to know about a mesh draw: 

  • Which shaders to use.

  • Their resource bindings.

  • Draw call parameters.

This enables caching and merging the draw calls just above the RHI level. FMeshDrawCommand is created from a FMeshBatch by a mesh pass specific FMeshPassProcessor.

Finally, SubmitMeshDrawCommands is used to convert FMeshDrawCommand into a series of RHI commands set on a RHICommandList.

Cached and Dynamic Mesh Batches

FPrimitiveSceneProxy has two paths for generating FMeshBatches — a cached and a dynamic one. FPrimitiveSceneProxy implementations control which path is used each frame through the GetViewRelevance() function.

MeshPipelineOverview_2.png

FMeshBatch code paths. Orange arrows are operations that have to be done every frame, while the blue arrow indicates an operation that is done once before being cached.

The Cached path builds and reuses FMeshBatch and is preferred for fast rendering of draws which don’t change every frame, like Static Meshes. It is implemented by DrawStaticElements, which is called when a proxy is added to the scene. Created FMeshBatches are stored inside FPrimitiveSceneInfo::StaticMeshes and reused every frame until the proxy is removed from the scene.

The Dynamic path recreates FMeshBatch every frame. This is the most flexible path and is used for draws which often change from frame to frame — for example, particles. It’s implemented by GetDynamicMeshElements. This function is called every frame from InitViews and creates a temporary FMeshBatch for every view.

FMeshPassProcessor

Specific pass mesh processors are derived from the FMeshPassProcessor base class and are responsible for converting the FMeshBatch into mesh draw commands for a given pass. This is where final draw filtering happens, the appropriate shader is selected and shader bindings are collected.

In order to create a custom mesh pass processor, it must be derived from FMeshPassProcessor and AddMeshBatch function needs to be overridden.

AddMeshBatch implements:

  • Draw filtering - For example, if a Material has a translucent draw mode then don’t process it in FDepthPassMeshProcessor

  • Selecting shaders and pipeline state (depth/stencil/blend state)

  • Finally calling BuildMeshDrawCommands() which gathers shader bindings for the pass/material/vertex factory/primitive and adds the new draw command to the appropriate list.

Shader Bindings

Shader Bindings in UE4 can be Uniform Buffers, Samplers, Textures, ShaderResourceViews or loose parameters (FShaderParameter).

A FMeshPassProcessor does not send shader bindings directly to the RHI with RHICmdList.SetShaderParameter, it merely records them into the FMeshDrawSingleShaderBindings class. The BuildMeshDrawCommands() function which is shared code between all passes will call GetShaderBindings() on the pass shaders.  

Shader Bindings fall into a few categories:

  • Pass-constant uniform buffers like ViewUniformBuffer or DepthPassUniformBuffer

  • Vertex Factory bindings

  • Material bindings

  • Primitive bindings

  • Pass specific bindings which change between draws.

Note that setting different bindings per-draw prevents draw call merging. Also, setting loose parameters — shader parameters that are not in a Uniform Buffer — prevents draw call merging, forcing slow constant buffer updates between draws.

Since each FMeshPassProcessor must go through BuildMeshDrawCommands() to call the pass shader’s GetShaderBindings(), we need a mechanism to pass arbitrary data from the FMeshPassProcessor to the GetShaderBindings() call. This is accomplished with the ShaderElementData parameter to BuildMeshDrawCommands().

FMeshDrawCommand Performance Hazards

A number of inline allocators are used in FMeshDrawCommand to store variable length arrays without extra heap allocations. Overflowing these causes a performance hazard, as each mesh draw command must construct/destruct/copy the heap allocation along with cache misses on traversal of the commands.

FMeshDrawShaderBindings assumes 2 shader frequencies (Vertex + Pixel):

TArray<FMeshDrawShaderBindingsLayout, TInlineAllocator<2>>ShaderLayouts

FMeshDrawCommand assumes 10 shader bindings among all frequencies:

const int32 NumInlineShaderBindings = 10;

FMeshDrawCommand assumes 4 vertex streams from the vertex factory:

typedef TArray<FVertexInputStream, TInlineAllocator<4>>FVertexInputStreamArray;

Pass Types

There are three ways to use a FMeshPassProcessor for drawing:

Pass Types

Description

**EMeshPass::Type enum**

Adding an entry here allocates an FParallelMeshDrawCommandPass inside FScene. This enables the FScene to cache mesh draw commands for the pass at AddToScene time. An FMeshPassProcessor must be registered to their enum with FRegisterPassProcessorCreateFunction. Pass setup and dispatch happens in a task.

Manual Pass

Using a manual pass where FParallelMeshDrawCommandPass is stored as a variable in an arbitrary class. This is used when there are a variable number of passes each frame (for example, shadow depth pass). This type of pass cannot cache commands at FScene::AddToScene time, but still gets the benefit of pass set up and dispatch happening in a task.

**DrawDynamicMeshPass**

This is used for immediate mode drawing and is the slowest, but most convenient approach. Pass set up and dispatch happen immediately within the caller thread.

Note that the renderer has not been made extensible to plugins at this time, and with the exception DrawDynamicMeshPass, adding a new pass requires changing renderer module code.

FParallelMeshDrawCommandPass

In order to add a custom mesh pass, first we need to add a new entry to EMeshPass enum. Next, inside FRelevancePacket::MarkRelevant(), and based on relevance flags, add Static Meshes to the list of visible mesh draw commands. For example this snippet adds a mesh draw command into depth pass if it is relevant for depth pass:

if (StaticMeshRelevance.bUseForDepthPass)
{
    DrawCommandPacket.AddCommandsForMesh(PrimitiveIndex, PrimitiveSceneInfo, StaticMeshRelevance, StaticMesh, Scene, bCanCache, EMeshPass::DepthPass);
}

Mark EMeshPass relevance for dynamic draws inside ComputeDynamicMeshRelevance:

if (ViewRelevance.bDrawRelevance && (ViewRelevance.bRenderInMainPass || ViewRelevance.bRenderCustomDepth))
{
    PassMask.Set(EMeshPass::DepthPass);
    View.NumVisibleDynamicMeshElements[EMeshPass::DepthPass] += NumElements;
}

Use FParallelMeshDrawCommandPass::DispatchDraw to draw this specific pass:

View.ParallelMeshDrawCommandPasses[EMeshPass::DepthPass].DispatchDraw(nullptr, RHICmdList);

It is also possible to set up a Parallel Command List set in order to draw this pass in parallel:

FPrePassParallelCommandListSet ParallelCommandListSet(View, this, ParentCmdList, true, DrawRenderState); 
View.ParallelMeshDrawCommandPasses[EMeshPass::DepthPass].DispatchDraw(&ParallelCommandListSet, ParentCmdList);

DrawDynamicMeshPass

FParallelMeshDrawCommandPass is the default path for common mesh passes. It should be used for performance critical mesh passes, as it’s the only path which supports mesh draw command caching and parallel rendering. On the other hand performance requirements enforce a very strict design — for example, it is not possible to modify mesh draw commands or shader bindings after InitViews.

For certain use cases, like drawing a few meshes inside the Editor, DrawDynamicMeshPass may be a simpler solution. It provides immediate mode mesh drawing and is the most flexible rendering path. UE4 uses DrawDynamicMeshPass for some Editor-only passes and Canvas rendering.

Drawing with DrawDynamicMeshPass is quite simple, it just requires to pass a lambda which will fill a temporary list of mesh draw commands:

DrawDynamicMeshPass(View, RHICmdList, [&View, CurrentDecalStage, RenderTargetMode](FDynamicPassMeshDrawListContext* DynamicMeshPassContext)
{
    FMeshDecalMeshProcessor PassMeshProcessor(
        View.Family->Scene->GetRenderScene(),
        &View,
        CurrentDecalStage,
        RenderTargetMode,
        DynamicMeshPassContext);

    for (int32 MeshBatchIndex = 0; MeshBatchIndex < View.MeshDecalBatches.Num(); ++MeshBatchIndex)
    {
        const FMeshBatch* Mesh = View.MeshDecalBatches[MeshBatchIndex].Mesh;
        const FPrimitiveSceneProxy* PrimitiveSceneProxy = View.MeshDecalBatches[MeshBatchIndex].Proxy;
        const uint64 DefaultBatchElementMask = ~0ull;

        PassMeshProcessor.AddMeshBatch(*Mesh, DefaultBatchElementMask, PrimitiveSceneProxy);
    }
});

Cached Mesh Draw Commands

Cached mesh draw commands are built-in FPrimitiveSceneInfo::AddToScene inside FPrimitiveSceneInfo::CacheMeshDrawCommands. Drawing with these is very efficient, as we simply need to select the appropriate pre-built commands each frame (FDrawCommandRelevancePacket::AddCommandsForMesh). Cached draw commands can only be used when draw state doesn’t change every frame and all shader bindings can be set up inside AddToScene.

MeshPipelineOverview_3.png

Mesh Draw Command caching paths. Orange arrows are operations that have to be done every frame, while blue arrows indicates an operation that is done once and cached.

In order to support cached mesh draw commands:

  • The pass must be using an entry in EMeshPass::Type

  • EMeshPassFlags::CachedMeshCommands flag must be passed when registering custom mesh processor

  • The mesh pass processor needs to be able to set up all shader bindings without relying on FSceneView, as during caching it will be null

In order for the shader to access per-frame data with cached mesh draw commands we bind scene-wide uniform buffers (see FScene::UniformBuffers) and then use RHIUpdateUniformBuffer to change their contents before the draw.

Currently, only FLocalVertexFactory (UStaticMeshComponent) can be cached because all other vertex factories require a view to set up for their shader bindings.

Cache Invalidation

Any data that a Mesh Pass Processor reads in AddMeshBatch is a dependency of the cached mesh draw commands. When that dependency changes, the cached commands must be invalidated. A single primitive’s cached commands can be invalidated with FPrimitiveSceneInfo::BeginDeferredUpdateStaticMeshes. The entire scene’s cached commands can be invalidated by setting Scene->bScenesPrimitivesNeedStaticMeshElementUpdate to true. This is a heavyweight operation and should be avoided during gameplay as it will cause a hitch in larger scenes.

For example, FBasePassMeshProcessor::AddMeshBatch uses Scene->SkyLight to decide whether to select the Skylight shader permutation or not. When Scene-SkyLight changes, we must invalidate cached mesh draw commands.

To achieve good performance with this caching scheme, it's important to put data in persistent Uniform Buffers. Then, you need to update those buffers rather than invalidating the cached commands frequently. For example, the skylight case could be changed to a dynamic branch in the shader based on PassUniformBuffer contents rather than selecting a different shader permutation.

Resource Lifetime Management

FMeshDrawCommand is not responsible for maintaining the lifetime of any of the resources it references, so special care must be taken with cached mesh draw commands to invalidate the commands which might reference a particular resource. For example, when recreating a Uniform Buffer referenced by a cached mesh draw command will cause a crash when traversing the cached mesh draw commands for rendering. The Uniform Buffer should either be updated or the cached mesh draw commands must be invalidated.

VALIDATE_UNIFORM_BUFFER_LIFETIME can be used to track down cases where a Uniform Buffer is deleted which is still referenced by a cached mesh draw command.

Draw Call Merging

Since FMeshDrawCommands capture all of the state a draw needs just above the RHI level, we can easily compare them for compatibility with draw call merging. The only form of draw call merging currently implemented is based around the D3D11 feature set, which enables merging of draw calls which have identical shader bindings into an instanced draw. More advanced RHIs like D3D12 enable more aggressive merging of draws but this is not yet implemented.

Dynamic Instancing

In order to merge two draws into an instanced one, they must have identical shader bindings (FMeshDrawCommand::MatchesForDynamicInstancing). Only InstanceID in the shader will vary between them, or vertex streams setup at instance frequency.

Shader parameters must be carefully crafted to enable dynamic instancing. This is achieved through various means depending on the parameter frequency:

Pass Types

Description

Pass Parameters

These are placed in the pass uniform buffer, where any draws in the pass can merge.

FLocalVertexFactory Parameters

These are placed in a uniform buffer owned by UStaticMesh where any draws with the same UStaticMesh can merge.

Material Instance Parameters

These are palced in a material uniform buffer where any draws using the same Material Instance can merge.

Lightmap Resource Parameters

These are placed in a LightmapResourceCluster uniform buffer where any draws using the same LightmapTexture can merge.

Primitive Parameters

These are placed in a scene-wide primitive data buffer called GPUScene and indexed in the shader using PrimitiveID.

GPU Scene

In order to have different primitives in the same instanced draw with primitive-specific parameters, supporting platforms (UseGPUScene) upload them to a scene-wide buffer (UpdateGPUScene) and index into it with a PrimitiveId. For FLocalVertexFactory, PrimitiveId comes from a instance-frequency vertex input stream. This must be passed to the pixel shader, which must use GetPrimitiveData(Parameters.PrimitiveId).Member to access Primitive shader parameters, instead of accessing the primitive uniform buffer directly (Primitive.Member).

Instancing Efficiency

Currently, only cached mesh draw commands can be merged with dynamic instancing, which limits dynamic instancing to FLocalVertexFactory

Certain edge cases also prevent merging:

  • Lightmaps making small textures — adjust MaxLightmapRadius in DefaultEngine.ini

  • Per-component vertex colors

  • SpeedTree Wind node

To investigate dynamic instancing efficiency in a level, use the r.MeshDrawCommands.LogDynamicInstancingStats 1 console command and inspect the output in the log.

Note that the Depth Prepass and Shadow Depth passes achieve higher merging efficiency because they frequently override with the default material’s shaders when possible.

Mesh Drawing Parallelism

Most of the work of mesh drawing is in tasks to stay off the critical path of the Rendering Thread.  In InitViews at the beginning of the RT frame, FParallelMeshDrawCommandPass issues one task per pass for pass setup (dynamic command generation, sorting and draw call merging).  As the RenderingThread progresses through the frame and arrives at a mesh pass (for example, RenderBasePass), it kicks off multiple FDrawVisibleMeshCommandsAnyThreadTasks per pass for draw dispatch (recording the RHICmdList), depending on how many cores the system has and how many draws there are to be dispatched.

  • Setting r.MeshDrawCommands.ParallelPassSetup to 0 will disable the pass setup task and cause the work to be done on the RenderingThread, which can be useful for debugging.

  • Setting r.RHICmdBasePassDeferredContexts to 0 will disable the parallel tasks for base pass draw dispatch, causing those to happen on the RenderingThread.

These tasks are kicked off as early as possible with a dependency chain so they can be executed in parallel with the Rendering Thread for a frame. The Rendering Thread only blocks on the completion of these tasks at the end of a frame in FSceneRenderer::WaitForTasksClearSnapshotsAndDeleteSceneRenderer.

Console Variables

These are some useful console variable for diagnosing issues inside the mesh drawing pipeline:

Console Variable

Description

r.MeshDrawCommands.ParallelPassSetup

Toggles mesh draw command processing tasks, which is useful for diagnosing mesh pass threading issues.

r.MeshDrawCommands.UseCachedCommands

Forces all mesh draw commands to be dynamic when disabled, which is useful for diagnosing issues with stale data inside cached mesh draw commands.

r.MeshDrawCommands.DynamicInstancing

This toggles dynamic instancing. It's useful for diagnosing dynamic instancing issues.

r.MeshDrawCommands.LogDynamicInstancingStats

This is useful for inspecting dynamic instancing efficiency.

r.GPUScene.UploadEveryFrame

Forces GPU Scene to be fully updated every frame, which is useful for diagnosing issues with stale GPU Scene data.

r.GPUScene.ValidatePrimitiveBuffer

This downloads GPU Scene to the CPU and validates its contents against primitive uniform buffers.

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