Rendering a scene with a RenderMan compliant renderer


Before you can render any images you actually need a renderer that has to be available on your system. For this tutorial, this has to be a RenderMan compliant renderer such as, for example, PRMan, Air, 3Delight or one of the Open Source renderers such as Aqsis or Pixie.

Additionally, there has to be a C preprocessor (cpp) on your system if you are using the RMMaterial class which is done later in the tutorial (the preprocessor is used to prepare a shader source file for parsing). If you are on Linux you’ll most certainly have one installed already (just try to invoke cpp), on Windows it might be that your renderer provides such a preprocessor (as BMRT once did). If not, you can try the tools from MinGW or Cygwin.

Rendering an image

Rendering an image “offline” virtually works the same as visualizing it with the interactive viewer tool. The only difference is that you visualize the scene with a different tool, namely the render tool. For example, here is a simple scene (, uvmap.png) visualized with the viewer tool:


To get a rendered version of the above scene we simply switch the tool:


The resulting image is a smooth version of the image produced by the viewer tool where the sphere is really a sphere and not a tesselated version of a sphere and where the geometry is antialiased.

By default, the render tool will try to use Aqsis for rendering the image. You can switch to another renderer with the –renderer/-r option:

$ --renderer=3delight
$ -rpixie

You can change the default renderer by setting the -r option in the environment variable RENDER_DEFAULT_OPTIONS:


(the actual command depends on your operating system and shell)

As you could see above, the viewer and render tool both work with the same input data, so creating a scene for rendering an image is exactly the same as creating a scene for the interactive viewer. This means, you can always use the viewer tool to preview your scenes. And as each tool does not only accept Python files you can render any 3D file that is supported by cgkit. In the following example, the render tool was used to render a 3DS file (the model was downloaded from

$ awing.3ds

In the case of the 3DS format, the render tool even creates shaders that mimic the appearance of the materials in the file. Here is the same scene as above rendered with 3D Studio MAX instead of Aqsis:


The render tool hides all the details that have to be dealt with before a scene can be rendered. This involves the following steps:

  • Creating a RIB file from the current scene
  • Translating the materials into RenderMan shaders
  • Converting & copying image maps
  • Compiling the shaders
  • Invoking the renderer
  • TODO: Converting the output image if necessary / creating an animation file

If you have tried one of the above examples yourself, you might have noticed that the render tool has created some new files and directories. The actual scene file for the renderer is the file main.rib in the current directory. If you want to rerender the scene you can simply pass this RIB file to the renderer. Then there are the additional directories geoms, maps and shaders which contain the translated geometry (one file per GeomObject used), the maps that were either used as input or generated during rendering and the generated shaders.

Materials vs Shaders

Before invoking the renderer the render tool generates RenderMan shaders on the fly. Each material may spawn up to three shaders: a surface shader, a displacement shader and an interior shader. Usually, any material that comes with cgkit may be used for RenderMan as well. That’s why in the first example a GLMaterial (and GL light sources) which is actually intended to be used together with the interactive viewer tool could also be used to render an image via RenderMan. However, the generated shaders are not very flexible as they just simulate the standard OpenGL lighting model.

As of this writing there isn’t yet a standard material dedicated to offline renderings. So far, the closest thing to that is the Material3DS class which stores (and its shaders partly approximate) the material parameters as they are stored in a 3DS file (the corresponding light source is the SpotLight3DS).

Of course, you still have the liberty to write your own shaders from scratch. That’s where the RMMaterial class comes into play. This class wraps external RenderMan shader files that you can create with your favorite text editor or shader creation tool. The shader will automatically be compiled and its parameters will be made available as slots.

The following material definition just uses the standard RenderMan constant shader:

mat = RMMaterial(
          surface = "constant",
          color   = (0.6, 0.5, 0.8)

The surface parameter specifies the surface shader that you want to use and it can either be a string as above or an instance of the RMShader class:

mat = RMMaterial(
          surface = RMShader("plastic", Kd=0.8, Ks=0.5),
          color   = (0.6, 0.5, 0.8)

Using a RMShader object has the advantage that you can pass shader arguments to the shader. In the first example you could only specify the color (and opacity) which are separate RenderMan calls that can be accessed by all shaders that make up a material (surface, displacement, interior). That’s why they are specified as parameters of the entire material and not of an individual shader.

In the above examples, the actual shader was specified by just providing its name. In that case, the material doesn’t know where the actual shader source file is located and you have to compile the shaders yourself and make sure that the renderer will find it (above, we have ensured these things because we were using standard RenderMan shaders that every renderer must support to be RenderMan compliant). Another thing is that the material won’t know the types of the shader parameters which means you have to declare them yourself if you are using non-standard parameters.

Here is another example that looks almost the same as above but is quite a bit different:

mat = RMMaterial(
          surface = RMShader("shaders/"),
          color   = (0.6, 0.5, 0.8)

The only difference is that instead of a raw shader name, the actual shader source file is given. As the material object now knows where the source file is located it will take care of the compilation itself. Additionally, it will read the file and extract the parameters of the shader and make them available as slots. So you can animate the shader parameters like any other parameter in your scene. Let’s do an example. The following is a simple shader that just creates a noise pattern without any illumination:

// Surface shader ""

surface mysurface(float freq=1.0; float amp=1.0)
  Ci = amp*color "rgb" noise(freq*P);
  Oi = 1;

You can use this shader as follows:

mat = RMMaterial(
          surface = RMShader("", freq=2.0, amp=1.5)

Sphere( material=mat )

If you render this scene you get the following image:


Note that you didn’t have to compile the shader yourself as you were specifying the shader source file. Also note that you didn’t have to declare the shader parameters in the RMShader constructor because their type is already known to the material by inspecting the source file. You can also read or write the parameters after construction like this:

mat.freq = 1.7
mat.amp = 0.5

Or connect the values to other values in your scene:

e = Expression("cos(t)")

In this example, the shader parameters have been accessed directly via the material object. As long as all shader parameter names are unique, you can access the parameters of all three shaders via the material. But if, for example, the surface shader and the displacement shader of one material use parameters with the same name, then you will only be able to access the surface shader parameters via the material. The displacement shader parameters are shadowed in that case. In such cases you have to take one additional indirection and specify that you want to manipulate the parameter of the displacement shader:

mat = RMMaterial(
          surface = RMShader(""),
          displacement = RMShader(""),
      displacementbound = ("current", 1.0)

# Set the freq parameter of the surface shader
mat.freq = 5.0
# Same as above as the surface shader has a higher priority anyway
mat.surface.freq = 5.0
# Set the freq parameter of the displacement shader
mat.displacement.freq = 5.0

Using external RIB files

When you create images with cgkit and RenderMan you’ll typically use some kind of modeling tool to create your assets and then use Python and the cgkit to manipulate some aspects of your scene or just use the render tool to invoke the renderer.

With this approach there has to be a way to get your models from your modeling tool into cgkit. If your modeling tool can export your models into a format that cgkit can import then you can simply use the load() command to load the model and then modify it accordingly (such as changing materials, for example). However, this is not always the best way as it might reduce the quality of the models in some situations. For example, if your model is composed of NURBS patches and you export it as a 3DS file it will be tesselated into a triangle mesh as this is the only type of geometry that a 3DS file can store. However, if your modeling tool can already export as RIB, then you can use the RIBArchive class to include the model into your scene. You can’t use the load() command as cgkit cannot import RIB as of this writing. And even if it will some day, it might happen that your RIB file contains some stuff that cgkit won’t understand. So the RIBArchive approach will still be desirable as it blindly includes any RIB you’re passing in (it doesn’t have to parse and understand the file itself).

Here is an example how you would include the file mymodel.rib to your scene (note that you’ll only see the model when rendered with the render tool. In the interactive viewer tool it will be invisible as the file isn’t read by cgkit):

    filename = "mymodel.rib"

The RIB file should only contain the raw geometry. You can then still assign cgkit materials to the model or position it in your world.

Rendering animations

By default, the render tool renders the first frame of an animation. You can set a different frame using the -b/–begin option. If you also set the -e/–end option the tool will render the entire range. Each option takes a time as argument which can be specified either as a frame number or a time value in seconds:

# Render frames 10 to 25 -b10 -e25

# Render the time interval 1.0 second to 2.5 seconds -b1s -e2.5s

As soon as you use the -e option the frame number will be appended to the output file name.