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Understanding 3D rendering step by step with 3DMark11
by Damien Triolet
Published on January 27, 2012

The representation of real-time 3D in modern games has become so complex that the old adage of a picture being as good as a thousand words is generally speaking a hard one to follow here. While it’s relatively easy to illustrate most of the graphics effects with particular examples, it’s much harder to represent them as stages of a full rendering. Nevertheless this is what’s required if we want to understand how images in recent games are constructed.

Although we will be going into the stats and other technical detail in this report, we have also come across an ideal example that allows us to illustrate 3D rendering in practice and somewhat demystify the process.

3DMark 11
Since the release 3DMark 11 about a year ago, we have been getting to grips with its inner workings so as to see if it did indeed represent the sort of implementation of DirectX 11 that would serve help us judge the capabilities of current GPUs in games to come. This process has taken us some time given the thousands of rendering commands to be observed and the various bugs and other limitations of the analytical tools on offer from AMD and NVIDIA and these complications have meant we have had to put the report on hold on several occasions.

While these observations have enabled us to formulate a critique of how 3DMark 11 puts DirectX11 innovations into practice – something we’ll be coming back to in a forthcoming report – they also represent an opportunity for us to shed some light, using some clear visuals, on the different stages required in the construction of the type of real-time 3D rendering used in recent video games, namely deferred rendering. Deferred rendering consists in preparing all the ingredients needed for the construction of an image in advance, storing them in intermediate memory buffers and only combining them to compute the lighting once the whole scene has been reviewed, so as to avoid processing hidden pixels.

If they’re doing their work properly, developers make the effort to optimise the slightest details of the 3D rendering they have gone for, which, in terms of the level at which we are able to observe it, results in blurring the edges between the different stages that make a rendering up or even removing any separation between these stages altogether. The situation is slightly different for Futuremark, the developer behind 3DMark11, as their goal is to compare the performance of different graphics cards with modern rendering techniques in as objective a way as possible and not to try and implement all the deepest optimisations. This is what has allowed us to take some ‘snapshots’ of the image construction process.

We have added some stats to our snapshots to enable us to give you an idea of the complexity of modern rendering. We will also give you an explanation of some of the techniques used. With a view to allowing as many readers as possible to understand how 3D works, we have put the most detailed explanations in insets and included a summary of the different stages on the last page of the report.
Those for whom the words "normal map" or "R11G11B10_FLOAT" mean nothing will therefore be able to visualise simply and rapidly how a 3D image is constructed.

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