GLSL Programming/Unity/Cutaways

Cutaway drawing of the dome of the Florence cathedral by Filippo Brunelleschi, 1414-36.

This tutorial covers discarding fragments, determining whether the front face or back face is rendered, and front-face and back-face culling. This tutorial assumes that you are familiar with varying variables as discussed in Section “RGB Cube”.

The main theme of this tutorial is to cut away triangles or fragments even though they are part of a mesh that is being rendered. The main two reasons are: we want to look through a triangle or fragment (as in the case of the roof in the drawing to the left, which is only partly cut away) or we know that a triangle isn't visible anyways; thus, we can save some performance by not processing it. OpenGL supports these situations in several ways; we will discuss two of them.

Very Cheap CutawaysEdit

The following shader is a very cheap way of cutting away parts of a mesh: all fragments are cut away that have a positive y coordinate in object coordinates (i.e. in the coordinate system in which it was modeled; see Section “Vertex Transformations” for details about coordinate systems). Here is the code:

Shader "GLSL shader using discard" {
   SubShader {
      Pass {
         Cull Off // turn off triangle culling, alternatives are:
         // Cull Back (or nothing): cull only back faces 
         // Cull Front : cull only front faces
         varying vec4 position_in_object_coordinates;
         #ifdef VERTEX         
         void main()
            position_in_object_coordinates= gl_Vertex;
            gl_Position = gl_ModelViewProjectionMatrix * gl_Vertex;
         #ifdef FRAGMENT
         void main()
            if (position_in_object_coordinates.y > 0.0) 
               discard; // drop the fragment if y coordinate > 0
            if (gl_FrontFacing) // are we looking at a front face?
               gl_FragColor = vec4(0.0, 1.0, 0.0, 1.0); // yes: green
               gl_FragColor = vec4(1.0, 0.0, 0.0, 1.0); // no: red

When you apply this shader to any of the default objects, the shader will cut away half of them. This is a very cheap way of producing hemispheres or open cylinders.

Discarding FragmentsEdit

Let's first focus on the discard instruction in the fragment shader. This instruction basically just discards the processed fragment. (This was called a fragment “kill” in earlier shading languages; I can understand that the fragments prefer the term “discard”.) Depending on the hardware, this can be a quite expensive technique in the sense that rendering might perform considerably worse as soon as there is one shader that includes a discard instruction (regardless of how many fragments are actually discarded, just the presence of the instruction may result in the deactivation of some important optimizations). Therefore, you should avoid this instruction whenever possible but in particular when you run into performance problems.

One more note: the condition for the fragment discard includes only an object coordinate. The consequence is that you can rotate and move the object in any way and the cutaway part will always rotate and move with the object. You might want to check what cutting in world space looks like: change the vertex and fragment shader such that the world coordinate y is used in the condition for the fragment discard. Tip: see Section “Shading in World Space” for how to transform the vertex into world space.

Better CutawaysEdit

If you are not(!) familiar with scripting in Unity, you might try the following idea to improve the shader: change it such that fragments are discarded if the y coordinate is greater than some threshold variable. Then introduce a shader property to allow the user to control this threshold. Tip: see Section “Shading in World Space” for a discussion of shader properties.

If you are familiar with scripting in Unity, you could try this idea: write a script for an object that takes a reference to another sphere object and assigns (using renderer.sharedMaterial.SetMatrix()) the inverse model matrix (renderer.worldToLocalMatrix) of that sphere object to a mat4 uniform variable of the shader. In the shader, compute the position of the fragment in world coordinates and apply the inverse model matrix of the other sphere object to the fragment position. Now you have the position of the fragment in the local coordinate system of the other sphere object; here, it is easy to test whether the fragment is inside the sphere or not because in this coordinate system all spheres are centered around the origin with radius 0.5. Discard the fragment if it is inside the other sphere object. The resulting script and shader can cut away points from the surface of any object with the help of a cutting sphere that can be manipulated interactively in the editor like any other sphere.

Distinguishing between Front and Back FacesEdit

A special boolean variable gl_FrontFacing is available in the fragment shader that specifies whether we are looking at the front face of a triangle. Usually, the front faces are facing the outside of a mesh and the back faces the inside. (Just as the surface normal vector usually points to the outside.) However, the actual way front and back faces are distinguished is the order of the vertices in a triangle: if the camera sees the vertices of a triangle in counter-clockwise order, it sees the front face. If it sees the vertices in clockwise order, it sees the back face.

Our fragment shader checks the variable gl_FrontFacing and assigns green to the output fragment color if gl_FrontFacing is true (i.e. the fragment is part of a front-facing triangle; i.e. it is facing the outside), and red if gl_FrontFacing is false (i.e. the fragment is part of a back-facing triangle; i.e. it is facing the inside). In fact, gl_FrontFacing allows you not only to render the two faces of a surfaces with different colors but with completely different styles.

Note that basing the definition of front and back faces on the order of vertices in a triangle can cause problems when vertices are mirrored, i.e. scaled with a negative factor. Unity tries to take care of these problems; thus, just specifying a negative scaling in the Transform component of the game object will usually not cause this problem. However, since Unity has no control over what we are doing in the vertex shader, we can still turn the inside out by multiplying one (or three) of the coordinates with -1, e.g. by assigning gl_Position this way in the vertex shader:

            gl_Position = gl_ModelViewProjectionMatrix 
            * vec4(-gl_Vertex.x, gl_Vertex.y, gl_Vertex.z, 1.0);

This just multiplies the x coordinate by -1. For a sphere, you might think that nothing happens, but it actually turns front faces into back faces and vice versa; thus, now the inside is green and the outside is red. (By the way, this problem also affects the surface normal vector.) Thus, be careful with mirrors!

Culling of Front or Back FacesEdit

Finally, the shader (more specifically the shader pass) includes the line Cull Off. This line has to come before GLSLPROGRAM because it is not in GLSL. In fact, it is the command of Unity's ShaderLab to turn off any triangle culling. This is necessary because by default back faces are culled away as if the line Cull Back was specified. You can also specify the culling of front faces with Cull Front. The reason why culling of back-facing triangles is active by default, is that the inside of objects is usually invisible; thus, back-face culling can save quite some performance by avoiding to rasterize these triangles as explained next. Of course, we were able to see the inside with our shader because we have discarded some fragments; thus, we had to deactivate back-face culling.

How does culling work? Triangles and vertices are processed as usual. However, after the viewport transformation of the vertices to screen coordinates (see Section “Vertex Transformations”) the graphics processor determines whether the vertices of a triangle appear in counter-clockwise order or in clockwise order on the screen. Based on this test, each triangle is considered a front-facing or a back-facing triangle. If it is front-facing and culling is activated for front-facing triangles, it will be discarded, i.e., the processing of it stops and it is not rasterized. Analogously, if it is back-facing and culling is activated for back-facing triangles. Otherwise, the triangle will be processed as usual.


Congratulations, you have worked through another tutorial. (If you have tried one of the assignments: good job! I didn't yet.) We have looked at:

  • How to discard fragments.
  • How to render front-facing and back-facing triangles in different colors.
  • How to deactivate the default culling of back faces.
  • How to activate the culling of front faces.

Further ReadingEdit

If you still want to know more

< GLSL Programming/Unity

Unless stated otherwise, all example source code on this page is granted to the public domain.
Last modified on 18 May 2012, at 11:01