Fundamentals of Unity UI
Checked with version: 5.3
It is important to understand the different parts making up the Unity UI system. There are several fundamental classes and components that, together, compose the system. This chapter first defines a number of terms used throughout this series of articles, then discusses the low-level behavior of several of Unity UI's key systems.
A Canvas is a native-code Unity component that is used by Unity’s rendering system to provide layered geometry that will be drawn in, or on top of, a game’s world-space.
Canvases are responsible for combining their constituent geometry into batches, generating the appropriate render commands and sending these to Unity’s Graphics system. All of this is done in native C++ code, and is called a rebatch or a batch build. When a Canvas has been marked as containing geometry that requires rebatching, the Canvas is considered dirty.
Geometry is provided to Canvases by Canvas Renderer components.
A Sub-canvas is simply a Canvas component that is nested inside another Canvas component. Sub-canvases isolate their children from their parent; a dirty child will not force a parent to rebuild its geometry, and vice versa(1).
A Graphic is a base class provided by the Unity UI C# library. It is the base class for all Unity UI C# classes that provide drawable geometry to the Canvas system. Most built-in Unity UI Graphics are implemented via the MaskableGraphic subclass, which allows them to be masked via the IMaskable interface. The major subclasses of Drawable are Image and Text, which provide their eponymous components.
Layout components control the size and positioning of RectTransforms, and are generally used to create complex layouts that require relative sizing or relative positioning of their contents. Layout components rely only on RectTransforms and only affect the properties of their associated RectTransforms. They are not dependent on the Graphic class, and can be used independently from Unity UI’s Graphic components.
Both Graphic and Layout components rely on the CanvasUpdateRegistry class, which is not exposed in the Unity Editor's interface. This class tracks the set of Layout components and Graphic components that must be updated, and triggers updates as needed when their associated Canvas invokes the willRenderCanvases event.
The updates of Layout and Graphic components is called a rebuild. The rebuild process is discussed in further detail later in this document.
When composing user interfaces in Unity UI, keep in mind that all geometry drawn by a Canvas will be drawn in the Transparent queue. That is, geometry produced by Unity UI will always be drawn back-to-front with alpha blending. The important thing to remember from a performance standpoint is that each pixel rasterized from a polygon will be sampled, even if it is wholly covered by other, opaque polygons. On mobile devices, this high level of overdraw can rapidly exceed the fill-rate capacity of the GPU.
The batch building process is the process whereby a Canvas combines the meshes representing its UI elements and generates the appropriate rendering commands to send to Unity’s graphics pipeline. The results of this process are cached and reused until the Canvas is marked as dirty, which occurs whenever there is a change to one of its constituent meshes.
The meshes used by the Canvas are taken from the set of Canvas Renderer components attached to the Canvas but not contained in any Sub-canvas.
Calculating the batches requires sorting the meshes by depth and examining them for overlaps, shared materials and so on. This operation is multi-threaded, and so its performance will generally be very different across different CPU architectures, and especially between mobile SoCs (which generally have few CPU cores) and modern desktop CPUs (which often have 4 or more cores).
The Rebuild process is where the layout and meshes of Unity UI’s C# Graphic components are recalculated. This is performed in the CanvasUpdateRegistry class. Remember, this is a C# class and its source can be found on Unity’s Bitbucket.
Within CanvasUpdateRegistry, the method of interest is PerformUpdate. This method is invoked whenever a Canvas component invokes the WillRenderCanvases event. This event is called once per frame.
PerformUpdate runs a three-step process:
- Dirty Layout components are requested to rebuild their layouts, via the ICanvasElement.Rebuild method.
- Any registered Clipping components (such as Masks) are requested to cull any clipped components. This is done via ClippingRegistry.Cull.
- Dirty Graphic components are requested to rebuild their graphical elements.
For Layout and Graphic rebuilds, the process is split into multiple parts. Layout rebuilds run in three parts (PreLayout, Layout and PostLayout) while Graphic rebuilds run in two (PreRender and LatePreRender).
To recalculate the appropriate positions (and potentially sizes) of components contained within one or more Layout components, it is necessary to apply the Layouts in their appropriate hierarchical order. Layouts closer to the root in the GameObject hierarchy can potentially alter the positions and sizes of any Layouts that may be nested within them, and so must be calculated first.
To do this, Unity UI sorts the list of dirty Layout components by their depth in the hierarchy. Items higher in the hierarchy (i.e. with fewer parent Transforms) are moved to the front of the list.
The sorted list of Layout components is then requested to rebuild their layouts; this is where the positions and sizes of UI elements controlled by Layout components are actually altered. For more details on how the positions of individual elements are affected by Layouts, see the UI Auto Layout section of the Unity Manual.
When Graphic components are rebuilt, Unity UI passes control to the Rebuild method of the ICanvasElement interface. Graphic implements this and runs two different rebuild steps during the PreRender stage of the Rebuild process.
- If the vertex data has been marked as dirty (e.g. when the component’s RectTransform has changed size), then the mesh is rebuilt.
- If the material data has been marked dirty (e.g. when the component’s material or texture has been changed), then the attached Canvas Renderer’s material will be updated.
Graphic Rebuilds do not proceed through the list of Graphic components in any particular order, and do not require any sorting operations.
- There are certain edge cases where this is not true, such as when changes to a parent Canvas cause a child Canvas to be resized. ↩