Unreal’s Rendering Passes

5 minute read

In this chapter you’ll learn about:

  • What are the rendering passes in a real-time engine
  • Over 20 kinds of passes in Unreal – like lighting, the base pass or the mysterious HZB
  • What affects their cost (as seen in GPU Visualizer or stat gpu)
  • What are the opportunities for optimization


If you prefer a video version of this lesson, you can watch it on YouTube. Still, please verify the information by reading this chapter, as it contains some important errata.

Note: Every chapter of this book is extended compared with the original video. It’s also regularly updated, while videos stay unchanged since their upload.

Passes: Table of contents

What is a rendering pass

Let’s begin with explaining what do we call a pass in the rendering pipeline. A pass is a set of draw calls (be sure to read what they are) executed on the GPU. They are grouped together by the function they have in the pipeline, like rendering transparent meshes or doing post processing. This organization is done for convenience and to ensure proper order of execution - as some passes may need the output of a particular previous pass.

Figure: The result of reflection passes

Passes render geometry – a.k.a meshes. This can mean 3D models in your scene or even just a single full-screen quad, as is the case with post processing. The output of most passes looks quite alien when you extract it. Depth calculation or shadow projection don’t look like your familiar textured scenes. Actually, only the base pass and translucency use the full materials we set up in the editor. Most other passes perform their tasks without them, using their own specialized shaders instead.

Cost of a pass

To intuitively understand what can affect the cost of a pass, it’s useful to look at its inputs and its output.

A huge complexity of fragment (pixel) shaders used by a pass, combined with a big number of pixels to process, makes the cost of the pass pixel-bound. The total polygon count of meshes it works on decides if the pass is geometry-bound. There’s also a dependency on memory amount and bandwith.

The base pass is an example of a pass affected by all three factors. It takes visible 3D models (geometry) and renders them with full materials (pixel count), including textures (memory). Then it writes the final information into a resolution-dependent G-Buffer (so it’s memory bandwith again).

If some passes take in just the G-Buffer, but not any 3D meshes - like post process effects do - then obviously they will be only pixel-bound. An increase in game’s rendering resolution will directly affect their cost. On the other hand, it means that the changes in the amount of 3D meshes mean nothing to post process passes. For example, Unreal’s ambient occlusion is a post process operation. It uses the hierarhical Z-buffer and some content from the G-Buffer, for example normals. By understanding what this pass requires, we know where to look for optimization opportunities – in AO’s settings and resolution adjustments, not in the scene’s content.

Figure: The final image and various components of the G-Buffer which were used to render it

Guide to passes and categories

The major part of this chapter is a guide to every significant rendering pass in Unreal. You don’t have to read the entire thing. Treat it more as a handbook, which you use to understand the output of the “Stat GPU” command or with GPU Visualizer. Both of them show you the cost of each rendering pass. This allows you to precisely locate issues in a scene, like too many shadowed lights or too many translucent materials.

The subchapters provides extensive information about dependencies of each pass. It allows you to address the most probable sources of trouble first. Much of this information was gathered by reading the engine’s source code and from practical tests. Be aware of potential mistakes here. Sources are provided in the footnotes, so you can fact-check it yourself.

Every pass’ description is laid out in the following format:

  • Responsible for
  • Cost affected by
  • Role of the pass
  • Optimization advice

Some passes are much more important or customizable than others. Many of them react to changes in the scene, while others – most notably post processes – stay dependent on the resolution only. That’s why the amount of information dedicated to each category varies greatly.

Don’t feel forced to read the entire chapter at once. Jump straight to the pass you want read about from the table of contents.

↑ Back to table of contents