Cycles scene optimizations: Ray visibility

If you want to make something invisible to a certain ray type in Blender/Cycles, most people do things like this:

Screen Shot 2015-02-21 at 7.24.15 PM

STOP DOING THAT.

You are making Cycles waste time doing worthless calculations. Instead, go over to the object tab, and use these instead:

Screen Shot 2015-02-21 at 7.27.14 PM

Unchecking “camera” there will produce the exact same result (the object is invisible when viewed directly, but otherwise appears normally), but it goes about it differently. The shader node setup tells Cycles when evaluating the material, figure out the current ray type, and if it’s camera, choose the second input on the mix shader. This is a transparent BSDF node at full white, so the ray passes unchanged.

Ray vis does it a much more efficient way: it just tells Cycles “if the current ray is a camera ray, don’t even bother checking if you hit this object, just assume you didn’t”. This is important, as it allows us to filter out the object while doing intersection tests (render nerd speak for “checking to see what the ray hit”). Even better, it allows us to avoid running the shader at all, much less realizing the result was a transparent BSDF and having to continue the path and do the whole thing over on the next object we hit.

It gets worse though. The light path shader includes a transparent BSDF, thus, it enables transparent shadows. Realtime engines and rasterizers have taught too many people to think alpha maps are their friends. But raytracers are different: to them alpha maps are evil, because they create a horrible effect called transparent shadows. Raytrace shadows are computed by tracing a path from the shading point (that’s where the initial ray landed) out to a lamp, and seeing if anything blocks the path. If something is there, the object is “in shadow” and the lamp contributes nothing. If it has a clear shot, it is not in shadow, and the lamp contributes at full strength. Simple.

Transparent shadows crap all over that simplicity. They cause the shadow ray test to return bullshit like “the ray might be blocked, or maybe it isn’t”. The only way to find out is to to run the shader (which we didn’t even have to do in the first place for opaque shadows!) and figure out what the actual opacity is at the point on the object we hit, then trace another ray from this point to see if we were actually blocked entirely by something else and we did all this for nothing (lolz). God help you if that “something else” is also transparent, then we have to do this shit all over again.

Needless to say, that wastes a lot of time. And now you know why that “transparent shadows” box is in the material options. Unchecking that tells Cycles “I know this mat has a transparent BSDF, but just ignore that and do opaque shadows anyway”. Because that can save a lot of time if no one is going to notice an object is casting solid shadows.

Now, sometimes we don’t have a choice, (alpha maps have their uses), but in the case of 100% transparency to a particular ray type, we do. We can just turn off ray visibility for that type, and have a simple shader with no transparency.

Just to compare, I set up this scene. The cube is invisible to camera rays:

Screen Shot 2015-02-21 at 7.42.18 PM

Regardless of if we use ray visibility or the light-path shader, the result is the same. But the render times aren’t:

  • Diffuse-only shader, camera ray visibility disabled: 1.73sec
  • Diffuse/transparent mix by “is camera ray”, camera ray visibility enabled: 2.28sec
  • Diffuse/transparent mix by “is camera ray”, camera ray visibility enabled, but “transparent shadows” disabled: 2.10sec

This is obviously a worst-case scenario, but you can see the impact of the extra calculations. 30% longer to render the exact same image! Using the same setup with transparent shadows disabled (still the same result, because light path “is camera ray” will never evaluate to 1 for a shadow ray) is only 2.1 sec. That’s means about 35% of that penalty wasn’t even due to our extra shader stuff, it was due to the useless enabling of transparent shadows.

So there we have it. Ray visibility is your friend.

_______

“But wait!” you might be saying, “I need to do some ray-switching for a bunch of objects with this one material! Light path is a lot easier in this case!”

Python to the rescue. This will disable camera visibility on all selected objects (select one object, then use “select > linked > material” to grab all objects with your mat):

import bpy

for obj in bpy.context.selected_objects:
    bpy.context.scene.objects.active = obj
    bpy.context.object.cycles_visibility.camera = False

If you need to flip a different ray visibility switch, you can just change that last line. This version will turn on transmission visibility:

import bpy

for obj in bpy.context.selected_objects:
    bpy.context.scene.objects.active = obj
    bpy.context.object.cycles_visibility.transmission = True

The python names for the 6 switches are:

camera
diffuse
glossy
transmission
scatter
shadow

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Importing Substance Painter texture to Cycles

UPDATE (May 2017)

You should use the Principled BSDF shader instead of the method described here. See https://jtheninja.wordpress.com/2017/05/11/substance-and-blender-2-79/ for more information.


 

Substance Painter is a powerful physically-based (PBR) texturing tool. It’s primarily aimed at game use (for now…), but you can easily make use of its output in Cycles. In this tutorial, I’m going to show you how to do that.

To start, I’ve given everyone’s favorite monkey an interesting paint job using the default color, height, roughness, and metallic channels.

suzanne

First order of business is to export these for Blender. Hit File > Export, and just use the default “Document Channels + Normal” preset.

export channels

Now let’s look at our shader in Cycles. We’ll start by making the simplest, most standard physical shader, a diffuse/glossy mix with fresnel.

starting nodes

NOTE: Some people like to use the layer weight node instead of the fresnel node. If that’s you, go right ahead. I’m just using the fresnel node here for simplicity.

Base Color

Our first channel to deal with is base color. There’s not much to this one. We have a base color image, we’ll just load it and plug it into the diffuse BSDF’s color slot.

base color attatched

Roughness

Our next texture if the roughness map. As you might have guessed, we’re connecting it to the roughness inputs on both the diffuse and glossy nodes. However, there’s a couple things we need to set to make sure Cycles interprets the map correctly. The first is to change the node from “color” to “non-color data” (as that is what the roughness map is). Any channel that is not set as “sRGB” in substance painter should be loaded as non-color data. Here we see that base color is sRGB (and thus should be loaded as color), but the rest of our channels are luminance (marked with an “L”), so they should be loaded as non-color data.

sp channel type

The other thing we need to do is square the roughness value to match the range between SP and Cycles. To do that, add a math node, set it to “power”, connect your roughness map to the top slot, and set the bottom slot to “2.0”.

rough attached

Let’s check how it looks so far:

color_rough_monkey

Ok, it’s a start. The colors are right at least. Now let’s deal with that height channel. There’s a few different ways to do that:

Height Method 1: Bump Node

One obvious way to handle the height channel is to do what SP shows it as: load the height texture and stick it in as a bump map. To do that, we’ll pass it through the bump node and attach that to our normal inputs

bump node

This works ok, but you often need to fine-tune the bump strength, and if you have a normal map for your object, we have to add more spaghetti (and load another texture) to integrate the two. There’s a better way, namely…

Height Method 2: The Normal OpenGL output

Substance Painter can generate a number of “converted” texture maps. One of which is the “Normal OpenGL” channel, which generates an OpenGL-style tangent-space normal map using the height channel and the object’s normal map (if it has one). We can attached it with the normal map node, like usual.

normal ogl node

Let’s try that:

normal_monkey

Perfect! Works right out of the box! In this case, our object didn’t have a baked normal map in Substance Painter. But in case it did (such as baked sculpting detail) the normal map will contain that as well as your height painting, so you don’t need to do anything else to connect the two.

Optional Height Method 3: The Displacement Output (Which Doesn’t Work Right)

There’s one more method you can do. It doesn’t really behave the way it should since it relies on an unfinished feature in Cycles, but you can instead attach the height map to the displacement output. If you don’t turn on experimental features, this has basically the same result as the bump node method. However, if you enable experimental and change the displace mode to “both” (aka, auto-bump), Cycles will displace the vertices of the mesh as best it can to fit the height map, then adjust the normals to fit the rest of the way.

It’s kind of cool, but again, this is an UNFINISHED FEATURE of Cycles that DOES NOT WORK QUITE RIGHT. (don’t enable subdiv, trust me). It’s probably best you just forget I mentioned this and use the normal map method.

Metallic

Ok, one more channel. This one gets a bit complicated. Up until now, our shader has been a simple dielectric shader. We now need to introduce an alternate shading path for metal, and use the metallic map to blend between them. To do this, you are going to add a mix node at the end of the chain, attach your metallic map to the mix factor, then put an extra glossy BSDF on the second input, and attach your base color, rough (from the power node) and normal (from the normal map node) to this glossy BSDF.

metallic attached

I’ve highlighted our newly added nodes in red. Areas that are dark in the metallic map will use our diffuse/glossy fresnel mix we created earlier. Areas that are bright in the metallic map will shift over to this glossy-only shader. Since metals have colored reflections, we attach the base color to the glossy-color input here, unlike our other glossy BSDF on the dielectric side. Since roughness and normals are shared, we use the squared-roughness and normals just like on our other BSDF nodes.

Wrapping Up

Here is our final monkey!

final_monkey

This shader setup is just the very basic elements required to translate the shader. There are numerous other effects you can add. For example, some people like the look of metal shaders that blend two glossy BSDFs at slightly different roughness. You can add that in to your shader (use an extra math node to scale your roughness map). Some people prefer to use the layer weight node instead of fresnel. It’s all up to you, feel free to experiment!

You can make a node group out of your shading nodes here (minus the image textures) so you don’t have to set this up all over again for every material. Or you can just use mine. Grab it in this post: https://jtheninja.wordpress.com/2016/09/18/simple-pbr-v5/

Simple PBR v2

UPDATE

You should use the Principled BSDF shader instead of PBR node groups such as Simple PBR. See https://jtheninja.wordpress.com/2017/05/11/substance-and-blender-2-79/ for more information.


 

Now that I’ve gotten a chance to test things out in the Ruined Fountain scene, I can now pass out the much-improved version of Simple PBR:

https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/1706676/YouTube%20Summary%20Files/simple_pbr_v2.blend.zip

Simple PBR is now even simpler! It now (properly) uses the albedo/rough/metal model used in many newer renderers and game engines.

It also comes with a cousin, Substance PBR. Substance PBR is just Simple PBR with the roughness squared, this is necessary to match the roughness curve used in Allegorithmic’s Substance tools. (bitmap2material, substance painter, etc). Substance PBR should more or less completely match the Substance pbr_metal_rough viewport shader, so you can just bake map channels, plug them in, and go. (I’ll have a more detail blog post in the coming days on how to work with Substance and Blender)

There is also a third group, Simple PBR Spec. This is like Simple PBR, but uses the spec/gloss model instead of metal/rough.

These groups do not have any tools for texture baking/creation, you still need to make those on your own. You may wish to check out Allegorithmic’s excellent guides on the subject: https://www.allegorithmic.com/pbr-guide