Table of Contents

WebGL Skinning

Skinning in graphics is the name given to moving a set of vertices based on the weighted influence of multiple matrices. That's pretty abstract.

It's called skinning because it's typically used to make 3D characters have a "skeleton" made from "bones" where "bone" is another name for matrix and then per vertex setting the influence of each bone to that vertex.

So for example the hand bone would have nearly 100% influence on the vertices near the hand of a character where as the foot bone would have zero influence on those same vertices.

The basic part is that you need bones (which is just a fancy way of saying a matrix hierarchy) and weights. Weights are per vertex values that go from 0 to 1 to say how much a particular bone-matrix affects the position of that vertex. Weights are kind of like vertex colors as far as data. One set of weights per vertex. In other words the weights are put in a buffer and provided through attributes.

Typically you limit the number of weights per vertex partly because otherwise it would be way too much data. A character can have anywhere from 15 bones (Virtua Fighter 1) to 150-300 bones (some modern games). If you had 300 bones you'd need 300 weights PER vertex PER bone. If your character had 10000 vertices that would be 3 million weights needed.

So, instead most realtime skinning systems limit it ~4 weights per vertex. Usually this is accomplished in an exporter/converter that takes data from a 3D packages like blender/maya/3dsmax and for each vertex finds the 4 bones with the highest weights and then normalizes those weights

To give an pseudo example a non-skinned vertex is typically computed like this

gl_Position = projection * view * model * position;

A skinned vertex is effectively computed like this

gl_Position = projection * view *
              (bone1Matrix * position * weight1 +
               bone2Matrix * position * weight2 +
               bone3Matrix * position * weight3 +
               bone4Matrix * position * weight4);

Assuming you stored the bones matrices in a uniform array, and you passed in the the weights and which bone each weight applies to as attributes you might do something like

in vec4 a_position;
in vec4 a_weights;         // 4 weights per vertex
in uvec4 a_boneNdx;        // 4 bone indices per vertex
uniform mat4 bones[MAX_BONES];  // 1 matrix per bone

gl_Position = projection * view *
              (a_bones[a_boneNdx[0]] * a_position * a_weight[0] +
               a_bones[a_boneNdx[1]] * a_position * a_weight[1] +
               a_bones[a_boneNdx[2]] * a_position * a_weight[2] +
               a_boneS[a_boneNdx[3]] * a_position * a_weight[3]);

There's one more issue. Let's say you have a model of a person with the origin (0,0,0) on the floor just between their feet.

Now imagine you put a matrix/bone/joint at their head and you want to use that for bone for skinning. To keep it simple imagine you just set the weights so the the vertices of the head have a weight of 1.0 for the head bone and no other joints influence those vertices.

There's a problem. The head vertices are 2 units above the origin. The head bone is also 2 units above the origin. If you actually multiplied those head vertices by the head bone matrix you'd get vertices 4 units above the origin. The original 2 units of the vertices + the 2 units of the head bone matrix.

A solution is to store a "bind pose" which is an extra matrix per joint of where each matrix was before you used it to influence the vertices. In that case the bind pose of the head matrix would be 2 units above the origin. So now you can use the inverse of that matrix to subtract out the extra 2 units.

In other words the bone matrices passed to the shader have each been multiplied by their inverse bind pose so as to make their influence only how much they changed from their original positions relative to the origin of the mesh.

Let's make a small example. We'll animate in 2d a grid like this

  • Where b0, b1, and b2 are the bone matrices.
  • b1 is a child of b0 and b2 is a child of b1
  • Verts 0,1 will get a weight of 1.0 from bone b0
  • Verts 2,3 will get a weight of 0.5 from bones b0 and b1
  • Verts 4,5 will get a weight of 1.0 from bone b1
  • Verts 6,7 will get a weight of 0.5 from bones b1 and b2
  • Verts 8,9 will get a weight of 1.0 from bone b3

We'll use the library described in less code more fun.

First we need the vertices and for each vertex the index of each bone that influences it and a number from 0 to 1 of how much influence that bone has.

const arrays = {
  position: {
    numComponents: 2,
    data: [
    0,  1,  // 0
    0, -1,  // 1
    2,  1,  // 2
    2, -1,  // 3
    4,  1,  // 4
    4, -1,  // 5
    6,  1,  // 6
    6, -1,  // 7
    8,  1,  // 8
    8, -1,  // 9
  boneNdx: {
    numComponents: 4,
    data: new Uint8Array([
      0, 0, 0, 0,  // 0
      0, 0, 0, 0,  // 1
      0, 1, 0, 0,  // 2
      0, 1, 0, 0,  // 3
      1, 0, 0, 0,  // 4
      1, 0, 0, 0,  // 5
      1, 2, 0, 0,  // 6
      1, 2, 0, 0,  // 7
      2, 0, 0, 0,  // 8
      2, 0, 0, 0,  // 9
  weight: {
    numComponents: 4,
    data: [
    1, 0, 0, 0,  // 0
    1, 0, 0, 0,  // 1
    .5,.5, 0, 0,  // 2
    .5,.5, 0, 0,  // 3
    1, 0, 0, 0,  // 4
    1, 0, 0, 0,  // 5
    .5,.5, 0, 0,  // 6
    .5,.5, 0, 0,  // 7
    1, 0, 0, 0,  // 8
    1, 0, 0, 0,  // 9

  indices: {
    numComponents: 2,
    data: [
      0, 1,
      0, 2,
      1, 3,
      2, 3, //
      2, 4,
      3, 5,
      4, 5,
      4, 6,
      5, 7, //
      6, 7,
      6, 8,
      7, 9,
      8, 9,
// calls gl.createBuffer, gl.bindBuffer, gl.bufferData
const bufferInfo = twgl.createBufferInfoFromArrays(gl, arrays);
const skinVAO = twgl.createVAOFromBufferInfo(gl, programInfo, bufferInfo);

We can define our uniform values including a matrix for each bone

// 4 matrices, one for each bone
const numBones = 4;
const boneArray = new Float32Array(numBones * 16);

var uniforms = {
  projection: m4.orthographic(-20, 20, -10, 10, -1, 1),
  view: m4.translation(-6, 0, 0),
  bones: boneArray,
  color: [1, 0, 0, 1],

We can make views into the boneArray, one for each matrix

// make views for each bone. This lets all the bones
// exist in 1 array for uploading but as separate
// arrays for using with the math functions
const boneMatrices = [];  // the uniform data
const bones = [];         // the value before multiplying by inverse bind matrix
const bindPose = [];      // the bind matrix
for (let i = 0; i < numBones; ++i) {
  boneMatrices.push(new Float32Array(boneArray.buffer, i * 4 * 16, 16));
  bindPose.push(m4.identity());  // just allocate storage
  bones.push(m4.identity());     // just allocate storage

And then some code to manipulate the bone matrixes. We'll just rotate them in a heirarchy like the bones of a finger.

// rotate each bone by angle and simulate a hierarchy
function computeBoneMatrices(bones, angle) {
  comnst m = m4.identity();
  m4.zRotate(m, angle, bones[0]);
  m4.translate(bones[0], 4, 0, 0, m);
  m4.zRotate(m, angle, bones[1]);
  m4.translate(bones[1], 4, 0, 0, m);
  m4.zRotate(m, angle, bones[2]);
  // bones[3] is not used

Now call it once to generate their initial positions and use the result to compute the inverse bind pose matrices.

// compute the initial positions of each matrix
computeBoneMatrices(bindPose, 0);

// compute their inverses
const bindPoseInv = {
  return m4.inverse(m);

Now we're ready to render

First we animate the bones, conmputing a new world matrix for each

const t = time * 0.001;
const angle = Math.sin(t) * 0.8;
computeBoneMatrices(bones, angle);

Then we multiple the result of each by the inverse bind pose to deal with the issue mentioned above

// multiply each by its bindPoseInverse
bones.forEach((bone, ndx) => {
  m4.multiply(bone, bindPoseInv[ndx], boneMatrices[ndx]);

Then all the normal stuff, setting up the attributes, setting the uniforms, and drawing.



// calls gl.uniformXXX, gl.activeTexture, gl.bindTexture
twgl.setUniforms(programInfo, uniforms);

// calls gl.drawArrays or gl.drawIndices
twgl.drawBufferInfo(gl, bufferInfo, gl.LINES);

And here's the result

The red lines are the skinned mesh. The green and blue lines represent the x-axis and y-axis of each bone or "joint". You can see how the vertices that are influenced by multiple bones move between the bones that influence them. We didn't cover how the bones are drawn as it's not important to explaining how skinning works. See the code if you're curious.

NOTE: bones vs joints is confusing. There's only 1 thing, matrices. But, in a 3d modelling package they usually draw a gizmo (a ui widget) between each matrix. That looks ends up looking like a bone. The joints are where matrices are and they draw a line or cone from each joint to the next to make it kind of look like a skeleton.

One thing to note that we might not have done before, we made a uvec4 attribute which is an attribute that receives unsigned integers. If we were not using twgl we'd have to call gl.vertexAttribIPointer to set it up instead of the more common gl.vertexAttibPointer.

Unfortunately there's a limit to the number of uniforms you can use in a shader. The lower limit on WebGL is 64 vec4s which is only 8 mat4s and you probably need some of those uniforms for other things like for example we have color in the fragment shader and we have projection and view which means if we were on a device with a limit of 64 vec4s we could only have 5 bones! Checking WebGLStats most devices support 128 vec4s and 70% of them support 256 vec4s but with are sample above that's still only 13 bones and 29 bones respectively. 13 is not even enough for a early 90s Virtua Fighter 1 style character and 29 is not close to the number used in most modern games.

A couple ways around that. One is to pre-process the models offline and break them into multiple parts each one using no more than N bones. That's pretty complicated and brings it's own set of issues.

Another is to store the bone matrices in a texture. This is an important reminder that textures are not just images, they are effectively 2D arrays of random access data that you can pass to a shader and you can use them for all kinds of things that are not just reading images for texturing.

Let's pass our matrices in a texture to bypass the uniform limit. To make this easy we're going to use floating point textures.

Let's update the shader to get the matrices out of a texture. We'll make the texture have one matrix per row. Each texel of the texture has R, G, B, and A, that's 4 values so we only need 4 pixels per matrix, one pixel for each row of the matrix. Textures can usually be at least 2048 pixels in certain dimension so this will give us room for at least 2048 bone matrices which is plenty.

in vec4 a_position;
in vec4 a_weight;
in uvec4 a_boneNdx;

uniform mat4 projection;
uniform mat4 view;
*uniform sampler2D boneMatrixTexture;

+mat4 getBoneMatrix(uint boneNdx) {
+  return mat4(
+    texelFetch(boneMatrixTexture, ivec2(0, boneNdx), 0),
+    texelFetch(boneMatrixTexture, ivec2(1, boneNdx), 0),
+    texelFetch(boneMatrixTexture, ivec2(2, boneNdx), 0),
+    texelFetch(boneMatrixTexture, ivec2(3, boneNdx), 0));

void main() {

  gl_Position = projection * view *
*                (getBoneMatrix(a_boneNdx[0]) * a_position * a_weight[0] +
*                 getBoneMatrix(a_boneNdx[1]) * a_position * a_weight[1] +
*                 getBoneMatrix(a_boneNdx[2]) * a_position * a_weight[2] +
*                 getBoneMatrix(a_boneNdx[3]) * a_position * a_weight[3]);


Notice we're using texelFetch instead of texture to get data from the texture. texelFetch retrieves a single texel from the texture. It takes as input a, sampler, an ivec2 with the x,y coordinate of the texture in texels, and the mip level as in

vec4 data = texelFetch(sampler2D, ivec2(x, y), lod);

Now we'll setup a texture we can put the bone matrices in

// prepare the texture for bone matrices
const boneMatrixTexture = gl.createTexture();
gl.bindTexture(gl.TEXTURE_2D, boneMatrixTexture);
// since we want to use the texture for pure data we turn
// off filtering
gl.texParameteri(gl.TEXTURE_2D, gl.TEXTURE_MIN_FILTER, gl.NEAREST);
gl.texParameteri(gl.TEXTURE_2D, gl.TEXTURE_MAG_FILTER, gl.NEAREST);

And we'll pass that texture as a uniform.

const uniforms = {
  projection: m4.orthographic(-20, 20, -10, 10, -1, 1),
  view: m4.translation(-6, 0, 0),
*  boneMatrixTexture,
  color: [1, 0, 0, 1],

Then the only thing we need to change is to update the texture with the latest bone matrices when rendering

// update the texture with the current matrices
gl.bindTexture(gl.TEXTURE_2D, boneMatrixTexture);
    0,         // level
    gl.RGBA32, // internal format
    4,         // width 4 pixels, each pixel has RGBA so 4 pixels is 16 values
    numBones,  // one row per bone
    0,         // border
    gl.RGBA,   // format
    gl.FLOAT,  // type

The result it the same but we've solved the issue that there aren't enough uniforms to pass in the matrices via uniforms.

So that's the basics of skinning. It's not so hard to write the code to display a skinned mesh. The harder part is actually getting data. You generally need some 3D software like blender/maya/3d studio max, and then to either write your own exporter or find a an exporter and format that will provide all the data needed. The vertices, their bones, which bones influence which vertices and their influence weights,

Questions? Ask on stackoverflow.
Issue/Bug? Create an issue on github.
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