“High-Speed, Off-Screen Particles” in Unity

After running into fill-rate problems with dust/dirt particles in Raptor Safari we decided to implement High-Speed, Off-Screen Particles, as outlined by NVIDIA’s GPU Gems 3. Without getting too technical, the article shows how to render particles into a smaller render target (RenderTexture in Unity) and then blend the particles back into screen. This works well for dust, dirt, and smoke like particles because they have low frequency textures. This low frequency masks the natural “blurring” that occurs from upscaling the smaller render target to the screen’s resolution.

Rendering Depth

First thing we’ll need is a depth buffer. By rendering to a separate render texture we can no longer take advantage of the GPU’s built-in z-testing. Having a depth buffer will allow us to do our own z-testing. Unity made it stupid easy to get a depth buffer of the scene with version 2.6.0. On the main camera run this line somewhere in Awake:

this.camera.depthTextureMode = DepthTextureMode.Depth;

However, for our purposes the depth buffer given to us by Unity is a bit overkill. Unity will render everything that the main camera can see. We only have dust-like particles near the camera, so there’s no reason for Unity to render depth information at far distances. So instead of taking advantage of Unity’s one-liner solution, we render our own depth buffer with a different far-clip plane. This isn’t as straight forward as setting the camera’s far-clip plane and is slightly outside of this article’s scope. We’ll address this in a future article.

Rendering the Particles

Here comes the hard part. First we’ll outline the steps we need to take to render the particles. All of this happens in the camera’s OnRenderImage function.

  1. Create/Setup the render texture that we will render our particles into
  2. Create/Setup the camera that will render our particles
  3. Render the particles with a replacement shader
  4. Blend the particles back into the screen with a composite shader

First we’ll create and setup the render texture that will hold our particles.

// get the downsample factor
var downsampleFactor:int = this.offScreenParticlesOptions.downsampleFactor;
// create the off-screen particles texture
var particlesRT:RenderTexture = RenderTexture.GetTemporary(Screen.width / downsampleFactor, Screen.height / downsampleFactor, 0);

The downsampleFactor determines the quality of the off-screen particles. Higher numbers will give worse quality, but better performance.

Next, we’ll create and setup the camera.

var ppCamera:Camera = PostProcessingHelper.GetPPCamera();
ppCamera.depthTextureMode = DepthTextureMode.None;
ppCamera.cullingMask = this.offScreenParticlesOptions.layerMask.value;
ppCamera.targetTexture = particlesRT;
ppCamera.clearFlags = CameraClearFlags.SolidColor;
ppCamera.backgroundColor = Color.black;

And the PostProcessingHelper.GetPPCamera() function:

private static var ppCameraGO:GameObject;

static function GetPPCamera():Camera
   // Create the shader camera if it doesn’t exist yet
   if(!ppCameraGO) {
      ppCameraGO = new GameObject(“Post Processing Camera”, Camera);
      ppCameraGO.camera.enabled = false;
      ppCameraGO.hideFlags = HideFlags.HideAndDontSave;

   return ppCameraGO.camera;

Notice how we are setting the layer that the particles are on. This is how the camera determines which renderers in the scene are the particles that we wish to render off-screen.

Next we render the actual particles. Telling the camera to render is easy enough.

Shader.SetGlobalVector(“_CameraDepthTexture_Size”, Vector4(this.camera.pixelWidth, this.camera.pixelHeight, 0.0, 0.0)); // some data about the depth buffer we need to send the shaders
depthCamera.RenderWithShader(Shader.Find(“Hidden/Off-Screen Particles Replace”), “RenderType”);

The replacement shader is a bit unwieldy, so here it is as a file. Don’t worry too much about what’s going on in the replacement shader. Just make sure to place this shader in a Resources folder.

Lastly, we blend the particles back into the scene.

var blendMaterial:Material = PostProcessingHelper.GetMaterial(Shader.Find(“Hidden/Off-Screen Particles Composite”));
var texelOffset:Vector2 = Vector2.Scale(source.GetTexelOffset(), Vector2(source.width, source.height));
Graphics.BlitMultiTap(particlesRT, source, blendMaterial, texelOffset);

And the Composite shader (again, place this in a Resources folder):

Shader “Hidden/Off-Screen Particles Composite” {
Properties {
_MainTex (“Base (RGB)”, RECT) = “white” {}
SubShader {
Pass {
ZTest Always Cull Off ZWrite Off Fog { Mode Off }
Blend One SrcAlpha
SetTexture[_MainTex] {combine texture}
Fallback Off

Don’t forget to release the particles render texture!


And after you finish doing any other post processing effects you may be doing, output to the destination RenderTexture:

Graphics.Blit(source, destination);


Click for bigger images. These all should be pixel perfect if you want to flip through or diff them.

Off-Screen Particles Disabled

Off-Screen Particles Disabled

Off-Screen Particles Enabled

Off-Screen Particles Enabled

Off-Screen Particles RGB

Off-Screen Particles RGB

Off-Screen Particles Alpha

Off-Screen Particles Alpha


Separate Alpha Blend Function: As of Unity 2.6.1, there is no way to blend alpha channels with a different blending function. So this replacement shader takes two passes on the particles. Once to render to the RGB channel and once to render to the Alpha channel. Apparently, this will be fixed in a future release of Unity and the separate pass will not be necessary. I’ll update this replacement shader if someone reminds me when that happens. Update: Looks like this can be accomplished with a single blending function if you premultiply the alpha into the rgb channel in the pixel shader. The new blending function for rendering the particles is One OneMinusSrcAlpha. The new blending function for blending the particle RT back into the screen buffer is One OneMinusSrcAlpha. And your particle RT will need to be cleared to (0,0,0,0) instead of (0,0,0,1).

Mixed Resolution: We decided that mixed resolution particles wasn’t necessary for us. The scene is too fast moving to notice the depth sampling artifacts. Plus the performance overhead from needing a second pass for the alpha channel made mixed resolution rendering just too expensive.

Soft Particles: Soft Particles are extremely easy to implement with the off-screen particles, but we didn’t see much of a difference in the final render. We decided to just use discard instead of soft particles in the end.

Anti-aliasing: This is untested with Anti-aliasing on directx. I really doubt it’ll work correctly as is. Shouldn’t be too difficult to get it to work though.

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2 Responses to “High-Speed, Off-Screen Particles” in Unity

  1. Daniel Brauer says:

    I’m glad you took the time to put this together. I flipped back and forth between the offscreen and regular particles, and I think you’re right: the low-resolution aliasing isn’t that noticeable.

  2. Hexalot says:


    I don’t understand your code … where does “depthCamera” come from, and how is PostProcessingHelper.GetMaterial() defined?


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