Flexible version of built-in materials for three.js.
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ChunkMaterial for three.js

Flexible version of built-in materials for three.js.


Three.js has "built-in" materials. These usually represent:

  • some "surface" effect, ie. various lighting models (lambert, phong, PBR)
  • effects (toon, normal)
  • utilities (depth, distance)
  • node specific (Line, Points, Sprite)

Out of the box they do their respective jobs, and have a high level interface:

someMaterial.someMap = new Texture() //change the appearance of a material
someMaterial.someNumber = 5
someMaterial.receiveShadow = true //make it work with the rest of the system

Under the hood, three.js has a system that manages how GLSL is assembled. Three.js extends the GLSL syntax and is able to inject little snippets of code into a shader template. A shader template is some version of this:

void main(){
	gl_Position = someResult;

When three encounters a template with #include <some_chunk> statements, it looks up a global dictionary THREE.ShaderChunk for the snippet, and replaces the statement with the shader string:

#include <some_pars> //not glsl

void main() { //GLSL

        vec4 computationResult; //GLSL - a variable specific to the template, not the chunks
	#include <some_computation> //not GLSL (three replaces this with GLSL)

	gl_Position = computationResult; //GLSL

Problems with built-in materials

There various issues with the built-in materials. If one wants to dig under the high level interface, the code that makes the system is scattered across the codebase. For shading alone (skinning not included):

  • Chunks - Found here. Hold 99% of GLSL code. Available to three.js via THREE.ShaderChunk dictionary.
  • Shader templates Found here. These hold a list of ordered #include <some_chunk> statements, that get replaced by three.js before compiling the shader. With some additional free uniforms and some #define branching
  • Uniform libraries Found here. These are some common groupings of various uniforms, that various materials combine.
  • Shader libraries Found here. These are all actually arguments for THREE.ShaderMaterial. Grouped together, these reference the templates and combine the uniforms.
  • Materials Found here. These are the high level interface objects, but they do not directly contain anything shader related.

THREE.WebGLRenderer has to know about all of these types. This doesn't have to be, since it already knows how to work with THREE.ShaderMaterial. The Material interface is completely decoupled from the appropriate shader. The renderer owns the libraries and the chunks, and builds or looks up appropriate shaders. This causes a lot of coupling and a scaling issue, the more materials are added to the library, the more WebGLRenderer needs to know about them.

It's similar with the Material super class. When serializing, the super class knows about all the possible properties that any sub class can have. This also causes a scaling issue, as more materials are added, or existing materials are extended with new properties, the super class always has to be kept in sync.

The shaders are blackboxed and only accessible through onBeforeCompile which comes with it's own plethora of problems. Extending shaders is possible, but cumbersome.

An attempt to solve these problems

This is a refactor of the material system that moves the responsibility for ultimately building valid GLSL outside of three.js.

All the materials are built on top of THREE.ShaderMaterial but retain the same interface as their built-in versions.

onBeforeCompile is used to bypass three's internal parsing system. The parser is modified to take the default provided chunks or optional user provided chunks, and parses the shader before three's had a chance to (by the time the internal parser sees the template, it's valid GLSL, there's no extra syntax).

The templates (GLSL), uniforms and interface are all consolidated into one folder. The materials define their own properties, and a ChunkMaterial super class figures out how wire this to the uniforms. The parameters are abstracted and stored as a list, in order to make the serialization easier.

Theoretically THREE.WebGLRenderer could be made smaller by removing references to these materials.


  • currently only a limited set of shading properties (color, map, normalMap etc.) has been tested
  • the most optimal strategy for building / tree shaking this should be found
  • the idea is to be able to refactor the structure of the tamplates and chunks, this will lead to duplicated code
  • some optimizations may be lost in the process of moving these out of the core
  • tree shaking, i'm having trouble identifying the problem with the chunks, whats the best outcome with static analysis and would even fetching these remotely make sense