Adapting UsdLux to Accommodate Geometry Lights

Copyright © 2021, Pixar Animation Studios, version 1.2

This document contains the most relevant sections of a much longer, Pixar-internal document that also deeply discussed alternative formulations, as well as engineering challenges that have either already been resolved, or relate to UsdLux’s integration into Presto.

Introduction and Background

As of USD 21.05, UsdLuxGeometryLight is skeletally defined, lacking critical specification (and possibly controls) for reproducible-across-renderers behavior. A GeometryLight is simply a Light that possesses a (single target? - not enforced) relationship to UsdGeomGprim source geometry. Before we can add GeometryLight support to Hydra and HdPrman, we need to address two concerns:

  • Ensure that we have sufficient and robust controls exposed, such that we can accommodate the workflow needs our artists developed for Mesh Lights in Katana.

  • Sufficiently lock down and describe the behavior of both the GeometryLight prim and the source Gprim so that renderers have a good chance of reproducing the artist’s intent when the lighting was developed in a different renderer.

In support of the first concern, we have had extensive internal discussions about workflow. This document and the proposal it contains are derived from those discussions, with inspiration also from several key discussions on the usd-interest forum.

In support of the second concern, we have done a documentation search on RenderMan, Arnold, Octane , and 3Delight NSI (see also this usd-interest discussion).

Mesh Light Support in the Industry

At the renderer level, there are two different philosophies about what constitutes a “mesh light”. Renderers like RenderMan and Arnold consider a mesh light to be a non-analytic light whose shape (and potentially emission pattern) are defined by a mesh, which is effectively subsumed into the light; so basically, this conception views meshes as a way to define arbitrarily-shaped light-sources. Renderers like Octane and 3DelightNSI, on the other hand, simply consult the material’s emissive or glow properties on normal gprims to decide whether the gprim should be recognized as contributing illumination; this makes it easy and natural to create meshes that have a mixture of diffuse, specular, and emissive responses, such as control panels, but makes it more awkward to provide sufficient lighting-specific controls, and to identify the objects with which lighters must interact.

Either formulation can accomplish the goal of the other, though users’ experience in this area will largely be determined by the DCC they use to establish the lighting - most popular DCC’s require mesh lights to be set up using a renderer-specific toolset/specification, and the featureset and specifiable behavior generally differs from renderer to renderer.

Recently, the RenderMan team has been thinking about generalizing support for arbitrary light sources, in a similar vein to Octane and 3Delight in that no special “light primitive” would be required, but without sacrificing the features or artistic control that we currently have with “traditional” lights. This would be a transformative change that necessarily (and desirably) ripples up and out through the UsdLux encoding of lights. We believe that making such changes to UsdLux will become increasingly expensive within Pixar and especially in the larger community the longer we wait; therefore we are willing to consider more extensive changes to UsdLux if they address not only “the geometry light problem,” but also looks forward to the “any prim can be a light” world.


At Pixar we regularly need both of the above formulations of mesh lights. Taking into account UsdStage’s envisionment as a user-level scenegraph, our chief goal is to provide and describe a schema and setup for mesh lights that reduces the amount of manual work artists need to do to achieve either formulation, drawing from the pain-points and customizations we’ve experienced and built in our pre-UsdLux pipelines. Additionally, we want to address the following:

  • Make it easier for DCC’s to provide a uniform specification and user experience for Mesh Lights, independent of targeted renderer. Standardizing user scenegraph representation means we are necessarily pushing more work to the “render prep” software layer to translate, but USD’s Hydra architecture provides appropriate entry-points for that translation to happen, with the benefit that renderers need only implement that translation once, rather than per-DCC.

  • Ensure that whatever formulation we provide for “mesh light” can be extended to accommodate other gprim light sources, as well. For example, some, if not all, renderers additionally allow at least volumes to be used as light sources, though there is no standardized means to accomplish this as a user.

Workflow Considerations

Our design must accommodate some workflow needs particular to geometry lights.

Emission and Glow: In Sync Except When Not

When the emissive geometry is a modeled, shaded surface built into the environment and intended to be visible to camera, we often find that achieving the desired look requires separating the directly viewed “visible glow” from the indirect light scattered into the environment. For example, we might want the intensity of light emitted into the environment to be somewhat greater than the glowing lines and buttons embedded in a glass control panel, as determined by the panel’s Material’s emissive lobe.

We will explore this issue and its implications on our design in the Behaviors section below.

Lighting Post-Modeling

Although the existence of UsdLux allows practical lights to be added to assets as part of the modeling process, we anticipate that will not always be the case. Further, assets created in environments whose renderers address geometry lighting purely as a material property may not contain geometry lights. Therefore, our design must allow for adding “geometry light-ness” into/onto existing assets, non-destructively.

Design Space and Issues

The primary design question is whether to represent geometry lights as a single prim or as a pair of related prims.

Dual-Prim Geometry Light Problems

The 21.05 UsdLuxGeometryLight, inspired by Katana and other DCC’s, represents the geometry light with two prims, one for the source geometry, and the other for the light emission (and identification as a Light). This separation of concerns into different prims seems flexible, and also maps nicely to the (non-physical) distinction between emission and glow that we discussed in the Workflow Considerations section.

However, splitting the representation into two prims introduces a different set of problems, primarily centered on inherited scenegraph state. Examining our experience building a custom, two-prim geometry light solution in Katana revealed that it required significant code complexity to address problems of position/transformation, visibility, and inherited primvar/attribute uncertainty arising from the fact that the “geometry light” can typically provide two answers to each of these scenegraph-state questions, and we require exactly one.

We attempted to mitigate the confusion that can arise from the UsdRelationship based two-prim formulation by instead posing geometry light as a “parent and child” prim relationship, where either the Light is a child of the Mesh, or the Mesh is a child of the Light. While this formulation reduces the potential for confusion over the inherited state for the geometry light, it does not eliminate it, and also leads to the questions: should the Light be the parent, or the Mesh? Or, given that each has different impacts on workflow and asset-construction considerations, would we need to support both formulations?

Single-Prim Geometry Light

We can avoid all of the synchronicity and inheritance complications of the “two prim” encodings by stipulating that a geometry light is represented as a single prim.

Because USD does not allow multiple inheritance in the schema type hierarchy, we cannot derive a MeshLight from Mesh and Light, nor a VolumeLight from Volume and Light. USD’s mechanism for behavior mixing is applied API schemas. So, the only way we could formulate a single-prim geometry light would be to provide a “LightAPI” schema that would endow Light-ness onto a Mesh or Volume prim. Thus, there need be no GeometryLight schema at all , though as we will see when discussing behaviors below, there may be a few new properties we would wish to add to LightAPI itself.

We could accomplish this by gutting the concrete UsdLuxLight schema, moving its entire definition into UsdLuxLightAPI, and then “simplify” the definition of Light to simply add LightAPI as a builtin applied schema. This would complicate the schema domain somewhat, especially the API. Because the core light properties and methods would no longer be defined on the Light base-class, things like python tab-completion on derived light-types would only find the properties and methods unique to the derived type, not the shared base properties, though coders would hopefully soon become accustomed to interacting with lights primarily through the LightAPI schema, directly.

It would also become somewhat more awkward and expensive to identify lights in the scene, since instead of asking simply prim.IsA<UsdLuxLight>(), we would need to additionally ask prim.HasA<UsdLuxLightAPI>(), and provide warning that the former, easy-to-reach-for query will miss geometry lights. In discussions last year, this was given as the predominant reason for rejecting a single-prim encoding for geometry lights.

However, if we instead remove the UsdLuxLight base-class altogether , with “Is a light” status bestowable only by prim.HasA<LightAPI>, then confusion and identification expense are greatly reduced. While this is about as fundamental a change as we could make to the UsdLux domain, and the engineering expense of making it will be non-trivial, it is worth examining closely, because:

  • We can roll it out in a way that is non-breaking to existing assets (beyond deprecating UsdLuxGeometryLight), in deference to vendors already producing UsdLux-containing documents.

  • This reformulation of UsdLux provides us with almost exactly the object model that forward-looking RenderMan requires: any geometry can be emissive, based on its surface shader, but when we require more artistic control over the intensity, shape, or selectivity of the emission or its shadows, we can simply augment the prim with a LightAPI (and other API’s already factored separately, such as ShapingAPI and ShadowAPI), which provides precisely the needed controls in a way that can be recognized by renderers.

In the following sections we will first lay out what this refactoring might look like (and why), and then confirm our proposal with a concrete behavior specification for cross-renderer “geometry light” support.

UsdLux LightAPI OM

Light -> LightAPI

From a UsdLux perspective, this change is fairly straightforward, though we draw attention to a couple of issues:

  • Applying UsdLuxLightAPI to a prim will bestow UsdShade Connectability to a prim, making it a “container”, since lights can contain pattern networks and LightFilters. When applied to a Mesh, for example, none of the Mesh’s schema properties will become connectable . Recall that connectable properties must be in the “inputs” or “outputs” namespaces, so there is no collision or confusion of behaviors: only the LightAPI properties will be connectable.

  • We may want to provide a utility function for identifying prims that are lights, which simply applies the HasA<LightAPI>() test.

Introduce Convenience Base Classes

We had already noted in our own early use that it is problematic for all of the Lux lights to inherit from a single base class, because some lights are boundable , while others, like DomeLight and DistantLight, are not. The introduction of LightAPI liberates us to address this situation. To make things easy and obvious for concrete light types, we propose to introduce two base classes: UsdLuxBoundableLightBase , and UsdLuxNonboundableLightBase , which inherit, respectively, from UsdGeomBoundable and UsdGeomXformable. Each of these schemas will have LightAPI applied as a builtin, in its definition.

Adding these classes for the concrete lights to derive from also gives us an opportunity to keep existing client code of UsdLux from breaking, by adding a feature to usdGenSchema that will reflect the builtin API of single-apply API schemas onto the schemas that apply them as builtins. This presents the entire set of Light mutators and accessors to all of the typed schemas that derive from the two new base classes. Without taking this extra step, one would still be able to get a RectLight’s width attribute as rectLight.GetWidthAttr(), but getting its intensity attribute would require UsdLux.LightAPI(rectLight).GetIntensityAttr().

Preserve Existing UsdLux Concrete Schemas

Interestingly, in this new formulation, UsdLuxCylinderLight, UsdLuxSphereLight, and possibly UsdLuxRectLight and UsdLuxDiskLight could be deprecated in favor of the UsdGeom Sphere, Cylinder, and Cube intrinsic primitives, with LightAPI applied, while DistantLight, PortalLight, and DomeLight could not. However, we argue that we should preserve all of the existing concrete classes, for the following reasons:

  • These light types are still the bread and butter of most DCC’s, so providing salient, concrete classes for them fosters robust interchange.

  • Some renderers recognize these light types and sample them much more efficiently than geometry lights since they can be evaluated analytically, so making them easy to identify again adds value.

  • Keeping these concrete classes preserves existing scenes that contain them.

  • Having concrete classes for the “core” light types makes it easier for renderers to auto-apply their extension schemas (e.g. PxrRectLightAPI can auto-apply to RectLight.

Since Light will no longer be the parent class for these lights, we must reparent them. We propose the following re-basing to the new convenience base classes:

UsdLux Light

UsdGeom Base Class

















PluginLight inherits from Xformable as a reinforcement that it is effectively a black box.

Deprecate GeometryLight

We have no need for GeometryLight as a typed schema anymore, so the one breaking aspect of this proposal is its deprecation and eventual elimination. We hope that since it has never been supported by Hydra that its adoption has been limited. This move from GeometryLight to LightAPI has a nice fallback behavior in that, as long as each geometry does bind a suitable emissive Material, even a renderer that does not support that geometry as a light will still get a chance at rendering the object as emissive, even if proper intensity, linking, etc. “fall off”. We do still have a problem to solve that motivates us to add some new API schemas in its place. The problem is twofold:

  1. Different renderers will have their own special controls for geometry lights, and possibly different controls for different types of geometry. We would therefore like “geometry lights” to be automatically enhanced with these controls, just as a RectLight comes “fully loaded” with all PxrRectLight controls in a RenderMan-using environment, via the auto-applied API schema mechanism

  1. But the generated PxrMeshLightAPI schema cannot stipulate that it should apply to all Mesh prims, or even to all LightAPI-prims. For speed and complexity reasons, we do not wish to enhance the auto-apply mechanism to get more sophisticated than the simple list of schema types described by apiSchemaAutoApplyTo.

Our solution is to introduce UsdLuxMeshLightAPI and UsdLuxVolumeLightAPI to handle the two most common types of geometry lights we see, though others could be added. Each of these schemas will itself apply LightAPI as a builtin schema, thus imbuing “lightness” to any Mesh or Volume prims, and using the new apiSchemaCanOnlyApplyTo schema generation tag, will indicate that each can only be applied to its respective gprim type. PxrMeshLightAPI will then target MeshLightAPI as its apiSchemaAutoApplyTo.

How do we Identify the Appropriate SdrShaderNode for a Light?

When the UsdLux module is loaded, we register a SdrShaderNode with a “USD” source type for each of the canonical lights, thus providing a “fallback” definition (with no actual shader implementation) for renderers that want to consume lights in the Sdr-based, “material-like” way that Hydra now represents them, but which do not represent lights as shaders. In these cases, usdImaging can rely on the fact that the Sdr identifier to assign for the light network is the same as the prim typeName. But this does not work for Gprim lights that have LightAPI (or MeshLightAPI or VolumeLightAPI) applied to them. Therefore we allow for a more explicit statement of the shader id, by adding

token light:shaderId = ""

to the LightAPI definition. MeshLightAPI will override the fallback value to “MeshLight” and VolumeLightAPI to “VolumeLight”. Great!

But we have been overlooking a related issue. The shader that RenderMan registers for RectLight is called “PxrRectLight”, not “RectLight”, and the Arnold shader is probably called something different, also. So we require that when the PxrRectLightAPI has been auto-applied to a RectLight prim and someone is rendering with RenderMan, that usdImaging selects “PxrRectLight” as the shader identifier, but that if an AiRectLightAPI is also auto-applied and one is rendering with Arnold, usdImaging will select the Arnold identifier.

Continuing the analogy of Lights to Material networks, we address this identification problem by additionally looking for light:shaderId attributes on the light prim whose name is prefixed with one of the renderer’s registered MaterialRenderContexts . So, using RenderMan and its “ri” context as an example, usdImaging would use the following logic to determine the shader to assign to a particular light.

  1. If ri:light:shaderId exists, is token-valued, and has a non-empty value, use it.

  2. Otherwise, if light:shaderId exists and has a non-empty value, use it.

  3. Otherwise, use the prim’s typeName.

Supplied with the necessary metadata in the shaders, usdgenschemafromsdr will add the properly-namespaced light:shaderId attribute as a builtin for each codeless schema it creates, so these attributes should never need to be authored by users.

Lights with Materials?

Another subtle issue is that we would now have scenarios in which lights would have bound Materials, which establishes a precedent that we previously argued is antagonistic to robust interchange of lights. However, that concern was primarily questioning the meaning of having a Material bound to a Light. In this proposal, it is clear that:

  • Lights are still themselves Connectable containers, with well-understood and documented use-cases for connecting pattern networks to their inputs.

  • The Material(s) that may be bound to a given “prim that is a light” are for the same purposes and meanings they would have if the prim were not a light, i.e. providing surface, volume, displacement shading behaviors, and potentially physical properties for simulation.

Therefore we do not believe this concern is still weighty.

Proposal and Behaviors

Given that the single-prim, LightAPI solution provides the more consistent and less-surprising user model, and that it scales and fits better in the forward-looking scene formulation where any geometry can be a light, we propose to adopt LightAPI as the means for specifying all lights , even though it requires a core change to UsdLux, and therefore carries a somewhat higher engineering cost.

Independently of the prim encoding, there are also several important behaviors around the interaction of surface and light shading that we wish to codify, which will become impositions on renderers wishing to adhere to the OM.

Shading and Emission

Even though we are unifying geometry and light into a single prim, we have an important tension to reconcile for the “gprim that happens to emit light”. In Pixar’s pipeline, it is the responsibility of the shading department to craft and receive director approval for the final look of assets in-camera. Further down the pipeline, operating on already-approved, shaded models, it is the lighting department’s job to propagate light in scenes to artistically illuminate the whole, while being sensitive to the look and balance of the individual shaded models - they must ensure that achieving the desired lighting does not destroy the “look of things”.

For example, consider a scene in which an astronaut is interacting with a glowing control panel in a dark cockpit. The control panel has glowing parts of several different hues, and the emission controls were set to produce a desired look in control renders. However, in the scene with the astronaut peering intently at the panel, the lighting artist observes that the emission from the panel causes a technicolor play of light across the astronaut’s face, which is too distracting for the scene. However, the control panel itself is also visible, in-camera. The behavior we have built into our “geometry lights” in RenderMan and Katana (using custom extensions to RFK) allows us to control the illumination from a geometry light independently from the visible-to-camera surface shading of the geometry light, when we need to. In our example, this allows the lighter to tone-down the emission from the control panel, and add a (not visible to camera) uniform blue-white RectLight on top of the panel to provide primary illumination for the astronaut’s face.

In other circumstances we use this ability to increase the emission from a geometry light, again without altering the look - increasing light output will often cause the direct-look of the emitter to blow out, an effect enhanced by our limited gamut display devices, so it is again important to detach the illumination response from the primary and secondary responses.

In fact, we rarely if ever find the physically correct response (in which LightAPI controls affect all rays in a pathtracer equally) useful, which is reflected in the specification of light behavior below. In thinking about the behavior we are prescribing, it may be useful to understand how we achieve this behavior (though certainly there may be other ways to achieve it). For true geometry lights with bound Materials that are entirely or partly glowing, we instantiate the geometry twice in the renderer. The first copy’s response is governed by the bound Material, and is not sampled as a light. The second copy is only visible to light rays, and “is” the light, participating in light sampling, with an energy distribution derived from both LightAPI inputs and potentially spliced patterns from the geometry’s bound Material. There are other advantages to this practice, such as:

  • being able to independently control the refinement (or granularity, in the case of volumes) for the geometry used for light sampling, where we can often get away with reduced fidelity in service of sampling speed

  • it facilitates using light linking to specify that the emissive gprim should not self-illuminate or cast shadows (we would expose a specific control for this, which under the hood translates into excluding the geometry mesh/volume from the light’s lightLink or shadowLink collections)

  • in past versions of RenderMan this separation is what allowed us to keep the light invisible to camera rays while keeping the glowing gprim visible

With this in mind, we stipulate the behavior of geometry lights when Materials are bound to the prim, and when they are not.

No-Material Behavior

If a gprim has an applied LightAPI but no bound Material, we are modeling the “light whose shape is defined by a geometry” philosophy described at the beginning of this document. The geometry in question will have no specular, diffuse, or transmissive response. Some renderers require special materials to be bound in situations like this, but we choose to not require any such specification in the USD scenegraph - render delegates can take care of this for us, if needed. It should be possible for users to drive the LightAPI.inputs:color input with a texture or other pattern network that refers to texture coordinates provided by the geometry (see note about Primvars in Light Networks).

Synchronizing Light with Material

For geometry that actually has a bound, entirely or partly emissive Material, we need to be able to specify the relationship of the Material response to the lighting response. We therefore introduce a new token-valued input to LightAPI, materialSyncMode, which has one of three values (if there is strong industry call for the “physically correct” behavior, we would consider adding a fourth, but that option adds a greater burden on the design described above, so we will not add it simply for the sake of completeness):

  • materialGlowTintsLight

    This is the fallback value. All primary and secondary rays see the emissive/glow response as dictated by the bound Material, while the base color seen by light rays (which is then modulated by all of the other LightAPI controls) is the multiplication of the color feeding the emission/glow input of the Material (i.e. its surface or volume shader) with the scalar or pattern input to LightAPI.inputs:color. This allows us to use the Light’s color to tint the geometry’s glow color, while preserving our access to intensity and other light controls to further modulate the illumination.

  • independent

    All primary and secondary rays see the emissive/glow response as dictated by the bound Material, while the base color seen by light rays is determined solely by LightAPI.inputs:color. Note that for partially emissive geometry (in which some parts are reflective rather than emissive), a suitable pattern must be connected to the light’s color input, or else the light will radiate uniformly from the geometry. (again, see Primvars in Light Networks).

  • noMaterialResponse

    The behavior in this mode is to exactly model the “No-Material Behavior” described above. We feel it is useful to present this as a materialSyncMode primarily so that the “canonical” lights in UsdLux, which in Renderers like RenderMan provide analytic sampling for greatly enhanced sampling speed, can indicate to the user that bound Materials are ignored , by overriding the LightAPI fallback to this value instead.


We have found that exercising RenderMan’s volume lighting capabilities efficiently often encourages us to use a lower-resolution manifestation of a Volume than we would use for visibility rays. An extra benefit of creating UsdLuxVolumeLightAPI is that we now have a place to host such extra, non-light-parameter controls. You can expect both UsdLuxVolumeLightAPI and UsdLuxMeshLightAPI to evolve as we gain experience in this new formulation, and we also welcome thoughts and ideas from the community.

Primvars in Light Networks

Some rendering architectures, such as Hydra, attempt to optimize renderer memory usage by pruning the primvars emitted for any given gprim to just those that we can verify are being used. That calculation currently only examines the gprim’s bound Material networks to look for primvar references. Given that geometry lights can, in some modes, directly consume primvars to evaluate the light’s base color, we must ensure that “used primvar” calculations now additionally check to see if a gprim has a LightAPI, and if so, examine its connected inputs.