Optimizing 4x4 matrix multiplication

In modern video games, the 4x4 matrix multiplication is an important cornerstone. It is used for a very long list of things: moving individual character joints, physics simulation, rendering, etc. To generate a single video game image (and we typically generate between 25 and 60 per second), several thousand matrix multiplications will take place. Today, we will take an in-depth look at such a fundamental piece of code.

As I will show, we can improve on some of the most common implementations out in the wild. I will use DirectX Math as a reference here but I have seen identical implementations in many state of the art game engines.

This blog post will be broken down into four sections:

Note that all the code for this can be found here. Feel free to toy with it and replicate the results or contribute your own.

Our test cases

In order to keep our observations grounded in reality, we will use three test cases that represent common heavy usage of 4x4 matrix multiplication. These are very synthetic in nature but they will make profiling and measuring immensely easier. Modern game engines do many things with many threads which can make profiling on PC somewhat a bit more complicated especially for something as short and simple as matrix multiplication.

Test case #1

Our first test case applies a constant matrix to an array of 64 matrices. Aside from our constant matrix, each input will be read from memory (here everything fits in our processor cache but it doesn’t matter much) and each output will be written back to memory. This code is meant to simulate the common operation of transforming an array of object space matrices into world space matrices, perhaps for skinning purposes.

Test case #2

Our second test case transforms an array of 64 local space matrices into an array of 64 object space matrices. To perform this operation, each local space matrix is multiplied by the parent object space matrix. The root matrix is trivial and equal in both local and object space as it has no parent. In this contrived example the parent matrix is always the previous entry in the array but in practice it would be some arbitrary index previously transformed. This operation is common at the end of the animation runtime where the pose generated will typically be in local space.

Test case #3

Our third test case takes two constant matrices and writes the result to a static array. The array is made static to prevent the compiler from stripping the code. This code is synthetic and meant to try and profile one off multiplications that happen everywhere in gameplay code. We perform the operation 64 times to help us measure the impact since the code is very fast to begin with.

Function signature variations

Our reference implementation taken from DirectX Math has the following signature:

There a few things that are noteworthy here. The function is marked inline but due to its considerable size, the function is generally never inlined. It also uses the __vectorcall calling convention with the macro XM_CALLCONV. This allows up to 6 SIMD input arguments to be passed by register (the default calling convention passes them by value on the stack, unlike with PowerPC) and the return value can also be up to 4 SIMD outputs passed by register. This also works for aggregate types such as XMMatrix. The function takes 2 arguments: M1 is passed by register with the help of FXMMATRIX and M2 is passed by const & with the help of CXMMATRIX.

This function signature will be called in our data: reg

We can vary the function signature in a number of ways and it will be interesting to compare the results. I came up with a number of variations. They are as follow.

Force inline

As mentioned, since our function is very large, inlining will typically fail to happen. However in very hot code, it still makes sense to inline the function.

This function signature will be called: inl

Pass everything from memory

An obvious change we can make is to pass both input arguments as const &. In many cases our matrices might not be cached in local registers to begin with and we have to load them from memory anyway (such as in test case #2).

This function signature will be called: mem

Flip our matrix arguments

In our matrix implementation, the rows of M2 are multiplied whole with each matrix element from M1. The code ends up looking like this:

This repeats 4 times for each row of M1. It is obvious that we can cache our 4 values from M2 and indeed the compiler typically does so for us in our reference implementation. Each of those 4 rows will be needed again and again but the same cannot be said of the 4 rows of M1 which are only needed temporarily. It would thus make sense to pass the matrix arguments in the opposite order: M2 first by register and M1 second by const &.

Note that we use a macro to perform the flip cleanly. I would have preferred a force inlined function but the compiler was not generating clean assembly from it.

This function signature will be called: flip

Expanded matrix argument

Even though the __vectorcall calling convention conveniently passes our matrix in 4 registers, it might help the compiler make different decisions if we are explicit about our intentions.

Our expanded variant will always use the flipped argument ordering. Measuring the non-flipped ordering is left as an exercise to the reader.

This function signature will be called: exp

Return value by argument

Another thing that is very common for a matrix multiplication implementation is to have the return value as a pointer or reference in a third argument.

Again this might help the compiler make different optimization choices. Note as well that implementations with this variant must explicitly cache the rows of M2 in order to have the correct result in case where the result is written to M2. It also improves the generated assembly as otherwise the output matrix would alias the arguments causing the compiler to not perform the caching automatically for you.

This function signature can be applied to all our variants and it will add the suffix 2

Permute all the things!

Taking all of this together and permuting everything yields 12 variants as follow:

In our data, they are called:

  • reg
  • reg2
  • reg_flip
  • reg_flip2
  • reg_exp
  • reg_exp2
  • mem
  • mem2
  • inl
  • inl2
  • inlexp
  • inlexp2

Hopefully this covers a large extent of common and sensible variations.

Our competing implementations

I was able to come up with six distinct implementations of the matrix multiplication, including the original reference. Note that I did not attempt to make the fastest implementation possible, there are other things we could try to make them faster. I also made sure that each version gave a result that was a exactly the same as the reference implementation, down to the last bit (binary exact).


The reference implementation is quite large as such I will not include the full source here but the code can be found here.

The reference regexp2 variant uses 10 XMM registers and totals 70 instructions.


In our reference implementation, an important part can be tweaked a bit.

We load a row from M1, extract each component, and replicate it into the 4 lanes of our SIMD register. This will compile down to 1 load instruction followed by 4 shuffle instructions. This was very common on older consoles: loads from memory were very expensive and none of the other instructions could work directly from memory. However, on SSE and in particular with AVX, we can do a bit better. We can use the _mm_broadcast_ss instruction. It takes as input a pointer to a scalar floating point value and it will output the replicated value over our 4 SIMD lanes. We thus save and avoid our load instruction.

The code for this variant can be found here.

The version 0 regexp2 variant uses 7 XMM registers and totals 58 instructions.


Another change we can perform is inspired from this post on StackOverflow. I rewrote the assembly into C++ code that uses intrinsics to try and keep it comparable.

Two versions were written: version 2 uses load/shuffle (code here) and version 1 uses broadcast (code here).

Branching was notoriously slow on the old consoles, it will be interesting to see how newer hardware performs.

The version 1 regexp2 variant uses 7 XMM registers and totals 23 instructions. The version 2 regexp2 variant uses 10 XMM registers and totals 37 instructions.

Handwritten assembly

Similar to our looping versions, I also kept the hand written assembly version referenced. I made a few tweaks to make sure the results were binary exact. Sadly, the tweaks required the usage of one extra register. Having run out of volatile registers, I elected to load the first row of M2 directly from memory with the multiply instruction during every iteration.

Only two variants were implemented: regexp2 and mem2.

Two versions were written: version 3 uses load/shuffle (code here) and version 4 uses broadcast (code here).

The version 3 regexp2 variant uses 5 XMM registers and totals 21 instructions. The version 4 regexp2 variant uses 5 XMM registers and totals 17 instructions.

The results

For our purposes, each test will be run 1000000 times and the cumulative time will be considered to be 1 sample. We will repeat this to gather 100 samples. To avoid skewing in our data that might result from various external sources (CPU frequency changes, other OS work, etc.), we will retain and use the 80th percentile from our dataset. Due to the simple nature of the code, this should be good enough for us to draw meaningful conclusions. All measurements are in milliseconds.

All of my raw results are parsed with a simple python script to extract the desired percentile and format it in a table form. The script can be found here.

I ran everything on my desktop computer which has an Intel i7-6850K processor. While my CPU differs from what the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 use, they both support AVX and could benefit from the same changes.

I also measured running the test cases with multithreading enabled to see if the results were consistent. Since the results were indeed consistent, we will only talk about the single threaded case but all the data for the test results can be found here:

Test case results

Here are the results for our 3 test cases:

Test Case #1 Results Test Case #2 Results Test Case #3 Results

A few things are immediately obvious:

  • Version 1 and 2, the looping intrinsic versions, are terribly slow. I moved them to the right so we can focus on the left part.
  • Version 0 is consistently faster than our reference implementation.

Here are the same results but only considering the best 3 variants (regexp2, mem2, and inlexp2) and the best 4 versions (reference, version 0, version 3, and version 4).

Best Results

Load/shuffle versus broadcast

Load/Shuffle VS Broadcast

Overwhelmingly, we can see that the versions that use broadcast are faster than their counterpart that uses load/shuffle. This is not too surprising: we use fewer registers, as a result fewer registers spill on the stack, and fewer instructions are used. This is more significant when the function isn’t force inlined since in our test cases, whatever we spill on the stack ends up hoisted outside of our loops when inlined.

The fact that we use fewer registers and instructions also has other side effects, namely it can help the compiler to inline functions. In particular, this is the case for version 1 and 2: version 1 uses broadcast and gets inlined automatically while version 2 uses load/shuffle and does not get inlined.

Output in registers versus memory

Output: Register VS Memory

For test cases #1 and #3, passing our return value as an argument is a net win when there is no inlining. This remains true to a lesser extent even when the functions are force inlined which means it helps the compiler make better choices.

However, for test case #2, it can sometimes be a bit slower. It seems that the assembly generated at the call site isn’t as clean as it could be. It’s possible that by tweaking the test case code a bit, performance could be improved.

Flipped versus expanded

Flipped VS Expanded

Looking only at version 0, the behaviour seems to differ depending when the result is passed as an argument or by register. In the regflip and regexp variants, performance can be faster (test case #2), the same (test case #1), or slower (test case #3). It seems there is high variability with what the compiler chooses to do. On the other hand, with the regflip2 and regexp2 variants, performance is generally faster. Test case #2 has about equal performance but as we have seen, that test case seems to favour results being returned by register.


Inlining On/Off

As it turns out, inlining sometimes gives a massive performance gain and sometimes it comes down to about the same. In general, it is best to let the compiler make inlining decisions but sometimes in very hot code, it is desirable to manually force the inlining for performance reasons. It thus makes sense to provide at least 2 versions of matrix multiplication: with and without force inlining.


Looping VS Unrolled

The looping versions are quite interesting. The 2 versions that use intrinsics perform absolutely terribly. They are worse by far, generally breaking out of the charts above. Strangely, they seem to benefit massively from passing the result as an argument (not shown on the graph above). Even with the handwritten assembly versions, we can see that they are generally slower than our unrolled intrinsic version 0. As it turns out, branching is still not a great idea in hot code even with modern hardware.

Is handwritten assembly worth it?

Handwritten Assembly VS Intrinsics

Looking at our looping versions, it is obvious that carefully crafting the assembly by hand can still give significant results. However, we must be careful when doing so. In particular, with Visual Studio, hand written assembly functions will never be inlined in x64, even by the linker. Something to keep in mind.

Best of the best

Reference VS The Best

In our results, a clear winner stands above all others: version 0 inlexp2:

  • In test case #1, it is 34% faster then the reference implementation
  • In test case #2, it is 16% faster then the reference implementation
  • In test case #3, it is 31% faster then the reference implementation

Even when it isn’t the fastest implementation, it is within measuring error of the leading alternative. And that leading alternative is always a variant of version 0.


As demonstrated by our data, even a hyper optimized piece of code such as matrix multiplication can sometimes be improved by new hardware features such as the AVX broadcast instruction. In particular, the broadcast instruction allows us to reduce register pressure which avoids spilling registers on the stack and saves on the corresponding instructions that do so. On a platform such as x64, register pressure is a real and important problem that must be taken into account for complex and hot code.

From our results, it seems to make sense to provide 2 implementations for matrix multiplication:

  • One of regflip2, regexp2, or mem2 that does not force inlining, suitable for everyday usage
  • inlexp2 that forces inlining, perfect for that piece of hot code that needs to save every cycle

This keeps things simple for the user: all variants return the result in a 3rd argument. Macros can be used to keep things clean and fast.

As always with optimizations, it is important to measure often and to never blindly make a change without measuring first.

DirectX Math commit d1aa003

Modern SIMD Programming in the SSE Era

For a very long time now with every new gaming console generation came a new set of hardware. New hardware meant new constraints which meant we had to revisit old optimization tricks, rules, and popular beliefs.

With the latest generation, both leading consoles (Xbox One and PlayStation 4) have opted for x64 and AMD CPUs. These are indeed significantly different from the old PowerPC CPUs used by Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.

I spent a significant amount of time last year optimizing cloth simulation code that had been written in mind for the previous generation and with a few tweaks I was able to get decent gains on the latest hardware. Unfortunately that code was proprietary and as such I cannot use it to show the changes and lessons I learned. Instead, I will take the decent and well respected DirectX Math public library and highlight as well as optimize specific examples.

Due to the large amount of code, charts, and information required to properly explain everything, this topic will be split into several parts:

Hardware highlights

The PowerPC era

In the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 generation, both CPUs were quite different, in particular the PlayStation 3 CPU was a significant departure from modern trends at the time. We will focus on it today only because it has been more publicly documented than its counterpart and the lessons we’ll learn from it applied to both consoles.

The PlayStation 3 console sported a fancy Cell microprocessor. We will not focus on the multi-threading aspects in this post series and instead take a deeper look at the execution of a single thread at the assembly level. One important characteristic of PowerPC chips is that they are based on the RISC model. RISC hardware is generally known to have more user addressable registers than CISC, the variant used by Intel and AMD for modern x64 CPUs. In fact, PowerPC CPUs have 32 general purpose registers, 32 floating point registers, and 32 AltiVec SIMD registers (note that the Cell SPEs had 128 registers!). Both consoles also had cache lines that were 128 bytes wide and their CPUs did not support out-of-order execution.

This gave rise to two common techniques to optimize code at the assembly level that we will revisit in this series.

First, the large amount of registers meant that we could leverage them easily to mitigate the fact that loading values from memory was slow and could not be easily hidden due to the in-order nature of the execution. This lead to register packing: a technique where values are loaded first in bulk as part of a vector value and specific components are extracted on demand.

Second, because the register sets for floating point and SIMD math were different, moving a value from one set to another involved storing the value in memory (generally the stack) and reloading it. This led to what is commonly known as load-hit-store stalls. To mitigate this, whenever SIMD math was mixed with scalar math it was generally best to treat simple scalar floating point math as if it were SIMD: the same scalar was replicated to every SIMD lane.

It is also worth noting that the calling convention used on those consoles favours passing many arguments by register, including vector arguments. There are also many other peculiarities that affected how code should best be written for the hardware such as avoiding to stress the poor branch prediction but we will not cover these at this time.

The x64 SSE era

The modern Xbox One and PlayStation 4 consoles opted for x64 AMD CPUs. These are state of the art processors with out-of-order execution, powerful branch prediction, and a large set of instructions from SSE and AVX. These CPUs depart from the previous generation significantly in the number of registers they have: 16 general purpose registers and 16 SIMD registers. The cache lines are also standard in size: 64 bytes wide.

The greatly reduced number of registers means that x64 code is much more prone to register pressure issues. Whenever the number of registers needed goes above 16, registers will spill on the stack, degrading performance. In practice, it isn’t a huge issue in large part because x64 supports instructions that directly work from memory, avoiding the need for a separate load instructions (unlike PowerPC CPUs). For example, in the expression C = add(A, B), A and B can both be residing in registers or B could optionally be a memory address. Internally the CPU has much more than 16 registers and thanks to register renaming and compound CISC instructions, our add instruction will end up performing a load for us behind the scenes. Leveraging this can be very important in hot code as we will see in this series.

Another important characteristic of x64 is that scalar floating point math uses the SSE registers. This means that unlike with PowerPC, converting a floating point value into a SIMD value is very cheap (it could be free if you hand write assembly but compilers will generally generate a shuffle instruction regardless of whether or not you need all components). On the other hand, converting a SIMD value into a floating point value is entirely free and no instruction is generated by modern compilers. This is an important factor to take into account and as we will see later in this series, it can be leveraged to great effect.

Up next

In the next post we will take a deep look at how 4x4 matrix multiplication is performed in DirectX Math and how we can speed it up in various ways.

Animation Compression: Advanced Quantization

I first spoke about this technique at the Game Developers Conference (GDC) in 2017 and the slides for that presentation can be found here. The idea is to take everything that is good about simple quantization and super charge it. Since simple quantization is generally a foundation for the other algorithms, this new variant can be used just as well for the same purpose.

It is worth noting that the algorithm I presented used uniform segmenting as well as range reduction both per clip and per block.

The key insight is that with simple quantization, using a hard coded bit rate is very naive and overly simplistic. We can do better, here’s how!

Variable Bit Rate

In the real world, the nature of the data can change quite dramatically from clip to clip, track to track, or even within a track through time. It is thus important to have a solution that can properly adapt to ever changing environmental conditions. A variable bit rate solves this problem for us.

It is ideal for our hierarchical data. As previously mentioned, our bone track data is stored in local space of their parent bone. This means that each bone incurs a small amount of error as a result of the lossy compression and this error will accumulate as we go down the hierarchy. The error accumulates because we need our final bone transforms in world space to perform skinning and thus the final error is visible on our visual mesh. This makes it obvious that bones higher up in the hierarchy such as the root and pelvis will contribute more error and thus require more bits to retain higher accuracy while on the other hand, bones further down such as finger tips or leaf bones do not require as many bits to maintain the same accuracy. A variable bit rate nicely solves this for us.

It is not unusual for some tracks within a clip to be exotic or to vastly differ from the others. Those tracks might require many more bits to retain sufficient accuracy or perhaps they might need far fewer. Again a variable bit rate is ideal for thus.

Some tracks can vary quite a bit through time as well. For example, during a cinematic it is quite common for all characters to be animated simultaneously. However not all characters might be visible on the screen at the same time. Characters that are not visible would typically remain animated but simply not move and thus their animation data remains constant during this time. A variable bit rate again allows us to exploit temporal coherence.

How It Works

As we saw with simple quantization, it is very common for the bit rate to be hardcoded. Instead, we want our bit rate to vary and adapt and it thus makes sense to calculate it in some way.

Per Clip

One morning, I realized that it might not be all that hard to try and brute force all bit rates within a certain range and find the smallest value that met some defined accuracy threshold. This allowed fast clips to use more bits when they were needed and slower clips to use fewer while still maintaining high accuracy.

A bit rate was considered superior to another if it was lower (yielding a lower memory footprint) and the accuracy as measured with our error function remained within an acceptable threshold.

Per Track Type

Not long after, I got thinking and realized that each track type is very different. Their units are different and the data also behaves very differently. It thus made sense to attempt and brute force every bit rate for each of our three track types: rotation, translation, and scale. I thus ended up with three bit rates per clip instead of a single value. It later became obvious that if I can do this per clip, I can also do it per block trivially and thus ended up with three bit rates per block. The added overhead was very small compared to the huge memory gains.

Per Track

It soon dawned on me that ideally, we wanted to find the best bit rate for each track within each block. The holy grail of our variable rate solution. Unfortunately, the search space for this solution is massive and it is no longer practical to perform a brute force search. A common character clip might easily have 50 to 80 tracks that are animated and each track can have one of several bit rates.

To solve this problem, we needed to find a smart heuristic.

The Algorithm

To trim the search space, I opted for a two phase approach: the first phase finds an approximate solution while the second phase refines it to a local minimum. This is an important distinction, the following algorithm does not find the globally optimal solution, instead it settles on an acceptable local minimum. It perhaps could be further improved.

The Search Space

In order to keep things simple, I settled on 16 possible bit rates that we used internally: 0, 3, 4, …, 16, and 23. These are the number of bits per track key component (e.g. per quaternion component). We need a higher value than 16 in some uncommon cases such as world space cinematic clips where the accuracy needs of the root are very high. As I mention in my presentation, 23 bits might have been chosen prematurely. The idea was to use the same number of bits as the floating point mantissa minus the sign bit but as it turns out, in order to de-quantize, we must be able to accurately and uniquely represent our quantized integers as 32 bit floating point numbers. Sadly, they can only accurately and uniquely represent integers up to 6 significant digits. The end result is thus that we have some rounding happening. I do not know wether or not this is a real issue or not. Perhaps 19 bits might be a more sensible choice. More work is required here to find the optimal value and evaluate the impact of the rounding.

We do have one edge case: when a track has 0 bits per component. This means our track is constant within our evaluation range and when this happens, we no longer need the track range information within that particular block since our range extent is now 0. We instead store our repeating constant key value within the 48 bits we had available for our range. This allows us to use 16 bits per component for our constant key.

Initial State

In order to start our algorithm, we first initialize all our tracks to use the highest bit rate possible. The goal of the algorithm being to lower these values as much as possible while remaining within our accuracy threshold.

Algorithm Initial State

First Phase

The first phase will lower the bit rate of every track in lock step as much as possible until we cannot do so without exceeding our error threshold. This allows us to quickly trim the search space by finding the best bit rate globally for a given block. However, there is one exception, during the duration of the first phase, the root tracks remain locked to the highest bit rate and thus the highest accuracy. This is done because some clips, such as a world space cinematic, have an unusually high accuracy requirement on the root tracks and if we process them as we do the others, they will negatively bias the rest of the tracks.

Algorithm Phase 1

Second Phase

The second phase iterates over all of our tracks and aims to individually lower their bit rate as much as possible up until we reach our error threshold. The algorithm terminates once all tracks have been processed.

Algorithm Phase 2

The order in which the tracks are processed matters. I tried two different orderings: starting at the root bone and going down the hierarchy towards the children and the opposite ordering, starting at the leaf bones and going back up towards the root. As it turns out, the distribution of which bit rate was selected by our algorithm changed quite a bit. Note that in the image, the right-most bit rates are very uncommon but they do happen (they are too rare to show up).

Bit Rate Distribution

Starting at the leaf bones, a higher incidence of lower bit rates were selected. This intuitively makes sense since we have more children than we have parents in our hierarchy. On the other hand, we also have a higher incidence of higher bit rates. Again this makes sense since by lowering the children first, we force the parents to retain more bits in order to preserve the accuracy.

Overall, in the data that I had on hand, starting at the leaf bones and going towards the root resulted in a memory footprint that was roughly 2% smaller without impacting the compression time, accuracy, and our decompression time.


The compression speed remains acceptable and it can easily be optimized by evaluating all blocks to compress in parallel.

On the decompression side, everything we do is very simple and fast. Since our data is uniform, all of our data is linearly contiguous in memory and a full key frame typically fits within a handful of cache lines (2-5). This is extremely dense and contributes to our very fast decompression. Sadly due to our variable bit rates, we can easily end up performing unaligned reads but their performance remains entirely acceptable on x64 and even with SSE. In fact, with minimal work, everything can be done in SSE and we could even use the streaming read (non-temporal read) intrinsics if we wanted to.

Up next: Sub-sampling

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Animation Compression: GDC 2017 Presentation

In early 2016 I had the opportunity to write a novel animation compression algorithm for Eidos Montreal as part of the game engine previously used by Rise of the Tomb Raider (2015). Later in February 2017, I had the pleasure to present it at the Game Developers Conference (GDC).

The slides for the presentation can be found here and a blog post detailing the technique can be found here.

Back to table of contents

Animation Compression: Unity 5

Unity 5 Official Trailer

Unity 5 is a very popular video game engine on mobile devices and other platforms. Being a state of the art game engine, it supports everything you might need when it comes to character animation including compression.

The relevant FBX Importer and Animation Clip documentation is very sparse. It’s worth mentioning that Unity 5 is a closed source software and as such, there is some amount of uncertainty and speculation. However, I was able to get in touch with an old colleague working at Unity to clarify what happens under the hood.

Before we dig into what each compression setting does we must first briefly cover the data representations that Unity 5 uses internally.

Track Data Encoding

The engine uses one of three encodings to represent an animation track regardless of the track data type (quaternion, vector, float, etc.):

Rotation tracks are always encoded as four curves to represent a full quaternion (one curve per component). An obvious win here could be to instead encode rotations as quaternion logarithms or by dropping the quaternion W component or the largest component. This would of course immediately reduce the memory footprint for rotation tracks by 25% at the expense of a few instructions to reconstruct the original quaternion.

Legacy Curve

Legacy curves are a strange beast. The source data is sampled uniformly at a fixed interval such as 30 FPS and is kept unsorted in full precision. Using discreet samples during decompression a Hermite curve is constructed on the fly and interpolated. It is unclear to me how this format emerged but it has since been superseded by the other two and it is not frequently used.

It must have been quite slow to decompress and should probably be avoided.

Streaming Curve

Streaming curves are proper curves that use Hermite coefficients. A track is split into intervals and each interval is encoded as a distinct spline. This allows discontinuities between intervals. For example, a camera cut or teleporting the root in a cinematic. Each interval has a small header of 8 bytes and each control point is stored in full floating point precision plus an index. This is likely overkill. Full floating point precision is typically far too much for encoding rotations and using simple quantization to store them on 16 bits per component or less could provide significant memory savings.

The resulting control points are sorted by time followed by track to render them as cache as efficient as possible which is a very good thing. At decompression, a cursor or cache is used to avoid repeatedly searching for our control points when playback is continuous and predictable. For these two reasons streaming curves are very fast to decompress in the average use case.

Dense Curve

What Unity 5 calls a dense curve I would call a raw format. The original source data is sampled at a fixed interval such as 30 FPS and nothing more is done to it as far as I am aware. The data is sorted to make it cache efficient by time and track. No linear key reduction is performed or attempted. The sampled values are not quantized and are simply stored with full precision.

Dense curves will typically have a smaller memory footprint than streaming curves only for very short tracks or for tracks where the data is very noisy such as a motion capture. For this reason, they are unlikely to be used in practice.

Overall their implementation is simple but perhaps a bit naive. Using simple quantization would give significant memory gains here without degrading decompression performance and might even speed it up! On the upside decompression speed is very likely to be faster than with streaming curves.

Compression Settings

At the time of writing, Unity 5 supports three compression settings:

No Compression

The most detailed quote from the documentation about what this setting does is:

Disables animation compression. This means that Unity doesn’t reduce keyframe count on import, which leads to the highest precision animations, but slower performance and bigger file and runtime memory size. It is generally not advisable to use this option - if you need higher precision animation, you should enable keyframe reduction and lower allowed Animation Compression Error values instead.

From what I could gather the originally imported clip is sampled uniformly (e.g. 30 FPS) and each track is converted into a streaming curve. This ensures everything remains smooth and accurate but the overhead can be very significant since all samples are retained. To make things worse nothing is done for constant tracks with this setting.

Keyframe Reduction

The most detailed quote from the documentation is:

Removes redundant keyframes.

When this setting is used constant tracks will be collapsed to a single value and redundant control points in animated tracks which will be removed within the specified error threshold. This setting uses streaming curves to represent track data.

Only three thresholds are exposed for this compression setting. One for each track type: rotation, translation, and scale. This is very likely to lead to the problems discussed in my post on measuring accuracy. And indeed, a quick search yields this gem. Even though it dates from Unity 3(2010), I doubt the animation compression has changed much. Unfortunately, the problems it raises are both very telling and common with local space error metric functions. Here are some relevant excerpts:

Now, you may be asking yourself, why would this guy turn off the key reducer in the first place? The answer is simple. The key reducer sucks. Here’s why.

Every animation I have completed for this project uses planted keys to anchor the feet (and sometimes hands) to the floor. This allows me to grab any part of the body and animate it, knowing that the feet will not move. When I export the FBX, the keys stay intact. I can bring the animation back into Max or into Maya using the keyframe reducer for either software, and the feet remain anchored. When I bring the same FBX into Unity the feet slide around. Often quite noticably. The only way to stop the feet from sliding is to turn off the key reducer.

This is a very common problem with local space error functions. Tweaking them is hard! The end result is that very often a weaker compression or no compression at all is used when issues are found on a clip by clip basis. I have seen this exact behavior from animators working on Unreal 3 back in the day and very recently in a proprietary AAA game engine. Even though from the user’s perspective the issue is the animation compression algorithm, in reality, the issue is almost entirely due to the error function.

What I would really like to see is some options within Unity’s animation importer. A couple ideas:

1) Max’s FBX keyframe reduction has several precision threshold settings that dictate how accurate the keyframe reduction should be. In Unity, it’s all or nothing. I would love the ability to adjust the threshold in which a keyframe gets added. I could turn up the sensitivity on some animations to reduce sliding and possibly turn it down on areas that need fewer keys than are given by the current value.

2) I’m not sure if this is possible, but it would be great to set keyframe reductions on some bones and not others. That way I can keep the arm chain in the proper location without having to bloat the keyframes of every bone in the whole skeleton.

Exposing a single error threshold per track type is very common and provides a source of frustration for animators. They often know which bones need higher accuracy but are unable to properly tweak per bone thresholds. Sadly, when this feature is present the settings often end up being copy & pasted with overly conservative values which yield a higher than needed memory footprint. Nobody has time to tweak a large number of thresholds repeatedly.

Unity 3 actually corrects the problem by giving us direct control over the keyframe reduction vs allowable error. If you find your animation is sliding to much, dial down the Position Error and/or Rotation Error settings in the animation import settings.

Unfortunately, I didn’t find any satisfying setup :/

I got some characters that move super fast in their anim, and I need the player to see the move correctly for gameplay / balance reasons.

So it can works for some anims, but not for others (making them feel like they are teleporting).

And under a certain reduction threshold, the memory size benefit is too small to resolve loading times problem :/

In fact, the only reduction setting I found that didn’t caused teleportations was :

Position : 0.1
Rotation : 0.1
Scale : 0 (as there is never any animated scale)

But this is still causing huge file sizes :(

A single error threshold per track type also means that the error threshold has to be as low as your most sensitive bone requires. This will, in turn, retain higher accuracy that might otherwise be needed yielding again a higher memory footprint that is often unacceptable.


The most detailed quote from the documentation is:

Let unity decide how to compress. Either by keyframe reduction or by using dense format. Unity will pick the most optimal of the two.

This is very vague and judging from the results of a quick search, a lot of people are curious.

Thankfully, I was able to get some answers!

If a track is very short or very noisy (which could happen with motion capture clips or baked simulations), the key reduction algorithm might not give appreciable gains and it is possible that a dense curve might end up having a smaller memory footprint than a streaming curve. When this happens for a particular track it will use the curve with the smallest memory footprint. As such, within a single clip, we can have a mix of dense and streaming curves.


The Unity 5 documentation is sparse and at times unclear. It leads to rampant speculation as to what might be going on under the hood and a lot of confusing results.

Its error function is poor, exposing a single value per track type. This leads to classic issues such as turning compression off to retain accuracy and using an overly conservative threshold to retain accuracy at the expense of the memory footprint. It perpetuates the stigma that animation compression can be painful to work with and can easily butcher an animator’s work without manual tweaking. Fixing the error function could be a reasonably simple task.

The optimal compression setting seems to be a very reasonable default value but it is not clear why the other two are exposed at all. Users are very likely to use one of the other settings instead of tweaking the error function thresholds which is probably a bad idea.

All curve types encode the data in full precision with 32-bit floating point numbers. This is likely overkill in a very large number of scenarios and implementing some form of simple quantization could provide huge memory gains with little work and little effort. Due to the reduced memory footprint, decompression timings might even improve.

Furthermore, rotation tracks could be encoded in a better format than a full quaternion further reducing the memory footprint for minimal work.

From what I could find nobody seemed to complain about animation decompression performance at runtime. This is mostly likely a direct result of the cache friendly data format and the usage of a cursor for streaming curves.

Up next: GDC 2017 Presentation

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