Skinned animations and shadows now in place

The Meteor engine is starting to come into its own with two new important features. I have now intergrated skinned animations and shadows into the rendering. In comparison, adding some good looking directional shadows was fairly easy. There was just a lot of redundant drawing code to clean up and make it easier to adjust the shadows. The mesh animations are a different problem altogether. Both presented some good challenges for me, and still have problems I need to overcome.

Skinned Animations and Blender

The skinned animation feature is working but still underdeveloped- for one thing, they only link to the default (first) animation clip, and I only have the Dude model to test it on. This one was easy to import because it was already made for a skinned animation sample. But making another compatible model like this proved to be no easy task.

I have a greater appreciation for what the 3D artists do, because getting models animated and exported properly has proven to be a huge hassle. Having took a course on it before, I’m decent with 3D modeling tools, including Blender. But actual modeling of props and characters is a huge time suck, so I’m just making small adjustments to models I found elsewhere.

I have tried binding an armature (a skeleton in Blender) to another test model and have been unable to assign blend weights automatically. So instead I took the much longer route of manually painting blend weights to each bone myself. With some models this became tedious, because some have underlying nooks and crevices that makes it hard to paint properly, and I have to zoom and turn the camera at all sorts of odd angles.

The issue is that XNA will not accept any skinned models if even one vertex has a weight of zero, meaning that all vertices need to have some influence to be moved by at least one bone. When having to deal with character meshes with several thousands of vertices, assigning weights automatically is a great time saver, but only when it works properly. I decided to just stick with the Dude model for now and make do with a simple flexible tube that’s not complex in shape. Right now I’m busy cleaning and improving the rendering code, but I’ll get back to the animated mesh problem eventually.

Animating the Models

J. Coluna’s recent rendering sample helped me with applying bone transformations on the GPU. It’s just a short set of matrix additions to apply all the transformations in the matrix stack. I created two separate vertex shader functions to deal with skinned and non-skinned meshes, the former having the extra matrix calculations. Skinned meshes and static meshes are grouped in different lists to organize the rendering. I suggest that you check his solution out if you want to do something similar with combining animation with your own shaders.

So the animation code seems manageable, but my implementation is  clumsy. For every effect technique that renders a mesh, I copied that technique, with “Animated” added to the name, and replaced the vertex shader with the one supporting bone animations. This made my already huge GBuffer / uber-effects file a bit longer, and I have to constantly copy more stuff in it if I need to make a shader for another rendering style. Any missed techniques will make the program crash since it fails to find one with the proper name. This is not a big worry since I’m the only one working on the code, but I do want to use a better way to handle skinned models in the shaders and cut down on the code a bit.

For now, though, my biggest hurdle on skinning is not technical- it clearly lies in the fact that I gotta learn how to use Blender more effectively to skin and animate whatever models I want to.

Variance Shadow Mapping

I briefly covered this topic a in the last post, and I was still experimenting with the results that it will produce when integrated into the engine, but after a lot of tweaking parameters, it’s finally starting to look great. To my surprise, the shadows did not fade out with close proximity to the shadow casters, so the objects don’t look like they’re floating. I’m okay with not having very defined shapes for the shadows all the time.

You could still get some good quality rendering just a single 512×512 map with the Sponza scene, and with enough saturation, the edges look great without a lot of noticeable bleeding artifacts that come from using screen-space blur. With results like these, I could hold off implementing SSAO for a while. Here you can see a screenshot with only the directional light and shadows applied:

Shadowing only works with directional lights for now. It has a “casts shadows” property which can be set to true or false, and all lights that have this turned on will be considered for drawing shadow maps. A cool feature is that, for artistic purposes, you can have the intensity of the shadows adjusted independently from the brightness of the light that produces them. This means you can dim or darken the shadows as the light angle changes, or even have a “dummy” directional light that is completely colorless (no light) but you can use its directional and distance properties to cast shadows overhead. It is more possible to create visually striking scenes this way.

A Few Kinks in the Armor

For now, I am using a separate Camera object to represent the light’s point of view, as with any shadow mapping technique. But the camera’s orientation is not yet tied with the light’s viewing direction. This means that the camera’s orientation is essentially useless and does not factor in at all with the rendering of the depth map and shadow projection. But I need this information to correctly cull the scene objects from the light’s point of view. As it is, shadows pop in and out as the “main” camera moves, because the shadow mapping effect is rendering only the objects as visibly seen from that camera. Once I figure out how to assign shadow casters and receivers for the appropriate light, that problem should go away.

Another problem I noticed came about when I combined the skinned animation shader with the shadow mapping effect. Those animated models are giving me a hard time! Here, the Dude model is mostly dark, with light spots in random places, even when they’re not supposed to be light. They move a bit and generally stick around the same areas when he’s walking, which just look odd in the final render.

At first I thought that I didn’t correctly calculate the normals for the shader, but then I realized that the shadow map projection doesn’t take normals into account at all, so there’s definitely something weird going on with how the shadows are being projected onto them.

What Else I Can Improve

Other than these major issues, I’m pretty happy with how these features brought more life into the renderings. There are some pending goals that I plan to take on next week, and at least get two of these done:

  • Better implemenation of cameras for directional lights
  • Possible parallel-split variance shadows, for even better quality
  • An option to use more traditional shadow mapping with some screen-space blur
  • Support hardware instancing of meshes
  • A straightforward .obj file splitter program to break up large .obj models into smaller files (I’ll release it to the public)
  • Frustum culling from the light’s point of view

I’ll be sure to cover at least one of these topics soon, and continue providing samples related to these.

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5 thoughts on “Skinned animations and shadows now in place

  1. I’ve been leaving comments all over your site. As you know, I too am building an engine using Catalin’s tutorial. I would love to help out with this engine, do let me know if you’d like the help. I’m happy to sign any sort of license agreement etc. if needed.

    • That sounds possible, but I do have a bit of difficulty juggling several projects. Do you have any place where I could see the progress of your engine? (the source code is not necessary) Also, I’m not yet sure what license I will release this project under, but I won’t completely rule out releasing the entire source, like at CodePlex.

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