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How FreeType's rasterizer work
by David Turner
Revised 2007-Feb-01
This file is an attempt to explain the internals of the FreeType
rasterizer. The rasterizer is of quite general purpose and could
easily be integrated into other programs.
I. Introduction
II. Rendering Technology
1. Requirements
2. Profiles and Spans
a. Sweeping the Shape
b. Decomposing Outlines into Profiles
c. The Render Pool
d. Computing Profiles Extents
e. Computing Profiles Coordinates
f. Sweeping and Sorting the Spans
I. Introduction
A rasterizer is a library in charge of converting a vectorial
representation of a shape into a bitmap. The FreeType rasterizer
has been originally developed to render the glyphs found in
TrueType files, made up of segments and second-order Béziers.
Meanwhile it has been extended to render third-order Bézier curves
also. This document is an explanation of its design and
While these explanations start from the basics, a knowledge of
common rasterization techniques is assumed.
II. Rendering Technology
1. Requirements
We assume that all scaling, rotating, hinting, etc., has been
already done. The glyph is thus described by a list of points in
the device space.
- All point coordinates are in the 26.6 fixed float format. The
used orientation is:
^ y
| reference orientation
*----> x
`26.6' means that 26 bits are used for the integer part of a
value and 6 bits are used for the fractional part.
Consequently, the `distance' between two neighbouring pixels is
64 `units' (1 unit = 1/64th of a pixel).
Note that, for the rasterizer, pixel centers are located at
integer coordinates. The TrueType bytecode interpreter,
however, assumes that the lower left edge of a pixel (which is
taken to be a square with a length of 1 unit) has integer
^ y ^ y
| |
| (1,1) | (0.5,0.5)
+-----------+ +-----+-----+
| | | | |
| | | | |
| | | o-----+-----> x
| | | (0,0) |
| | | |
o-----------+-----> x +-----------+
(0,0) (-0.5,-0.5)
TrueType bytecode interpreter FreeType rasterizer
A pixel line in the target bitmap is called a `scanline'.
- A glyph is usually made of several contours, also called
`outlines'. A contour is simply a closed curve that delimits an
outer or inner region of the glyph. It is described by a series
of successive points of the points table.
Each point of the glyph has an associated flag that indicates
whether it is `on' or `off' the curve. Two successive `on'
points indicate a line segment joining the two points.
One `off' point amidst two `on' points indicates a second-degree
(conic) Bézier parametric arc, defined by these three points
(the `off' point being the control point, and the `on' ones the
start and end points). Similarly, a third-degree (cubic) Bézier
curve is described by four points (two `off' control points
between two `on' points).
Finally, for second-order curves only, two successive `off'
points forces the rasterizer to create, during rendering, an
`on' point amidst them, at their exact middle. This greatly
facilitates the definition of successive Bézier arcs.
The parametric form of a second-order Bézier curve is:
P(t) = (1-t)^2*P1 + 2*t*(1-t)*P2 + t^2*P3
(P1 and P3 are the end points, P2 the control point.)
The parametric form of a third-order Bézier curve is:
P(t) = (1-t)^3*P1 + 3*t*(1-t)^2*P2 + 3*t^2*(1-t)*P3 + t^3*P4
(P1 and P4 are the end points, P2 and P3 the control points.)
For both formulae, t is a real number in the range [0..1].
Note that the rasterizer does not use these formulae directly.
They exhibit, however, one very useful property of Bézier arcs:
Each point of the curve is a weighted average of the control
As all weights are positive and always sum up to 1, whatever the
value of t, each arc point lies within the triangle (polygon)
defined by the arc's three (four) control points.
In the following, only second-order curves are discussed since
rasterization of third-order curves is completely identical.
Here some samples for second-order curves.
* # on curve
* off curve
#-__ _-- -_
--__ _- -
--__ # \
--__ #
Two `on' points
Two `on' points and one `off' point
between them
# __ Two `on' points with two `off'
\ - - points between them. The point
\ / \ marked `0' is the middle of the
- 0 \ `off' points, and is a `virtual
-_ _- # on' point where the curve passes.
-- It does not appear in the point
* list.
2. Profiles and Spans
The following is a basic explanation of the _kind_ of computations
made by the rasterizer to build a bitmap from a vector
representation. Note that the actual implementation is slightly
different, due to performance tuning and other factors.
However, the following ideas remain in the same category, and are
more convenient to understand.
a. Sweeping the Shape
The best way to fill a shape is to decompose it into a number of
simple horizontal segments, then turn them on in the target
bitmap. These segments are called `spans'.
_-- -_
_- -
- \
/ \
/ \
| \
__---__ Example: filling a shape
_----------_ with spans.
/-----------------\ This is typically done from the top
/ \ to the bottom of the shape, in a
| | \ movement called a `sweep'.
In order to draw a span, the rasterizer must compute its
coordinates, which are simply the x coordinates of the shape's
contours, taken on the y scanlines.
/---/ |---| Note that there are usually
/---/ |---| several spans per scanline.
| /---/ |---|
| /---/_______|---| When rendering this shape to the
V /----------------| current scanline y, we must
/-----------------| compute the x values of the
a /----| |---| points a, b, c, and d.
- - - * * - - - - * * - - y -
/ / b c| |d
/---/ |---|
/---/ |---| And then turn on the spans a-b
/---/ |---| and c-d.
a /----| |---|
- - - ####### - - - - ##### - - y -
/ / b c| |d
b. Decomposing Outlines into Profiles
For each scanline during the sweep, we need the following
o The number of spans on the current scanline, given by the
number of shape points intersecting the scanline (these are
the points a, b, c, and d in the above example).
o The x coordinates of these points.
x coordinates are computed before the sweep, in a phase called
`decomposition' which converts the glyph into *profiles*.
Put it simply, a `profile' is a contour's portion that can only
be either ascending or descending, i.e., it is monotonic in the
vertical direction (we also say y-monotonic). There is no such
thing as a horizontal profile, as we shall see.
Here are a few examples:
this square
1 2
---->---- is made of two
| | | |
| | profiles | |
^ v ^ + v
| | | |
| | | |
up down
this triangle
P2 1 2
|\ is made of two | \
^ | \ \ | \
| | \ \ profiles | \ |
| | \ v ^ | \ |
| \ | | + \ v
| \ | | \
P1 ---___ \ ---___ \
---_\ ---_ \
<--__ P3 up down
A more general contour can be made of more than two profiles:
__ ^
/ | / ___ / |
/ | / | / | / |
| | / / => | v / /
| | | | | | ^ |
^ | |___| | | ^ + | + | + v
| | | v | |
| | | up |
|___________| | down |
<-- up down
Successive profiles are always joined by horizontal segments
that are not part of the profiles themselves.
For the rasterizer, a profile is simply an *array* that
associates one horizontal *pixel* coordinate to each bitmap
*scanline* crossed by the contour's section containing the
profile. Note that profiles are *oriented* up or down along the
glyph's original flow orientation.
In other graphics libraries, profiles are also called `edges' or
c. The Render Pool
FreeType has been designed to be able to run well on _very_
light systems, including embedded systems with very few memory.
A render pool will be allocated once; the rasterizer uses this
pool for all its needs by managing this memory directly in it.
The algorithms that are used for profile computation make it
possible to use the pool as a simple growing heap. This means
that this memory management is actually quite easy and faster
than any kind of malloc()/free() combination.
Moreover, we'll see later that the rasterizer is able, when
dealing with profiles too large and numerous to lie all at once
in the render pool, to immediately decompose recursively the
rendering process into independent sub-tasks, each taking less
memory to be performed (see `sub-banding' below).
The render pool doesn't need to be large. A 4KByte pool is
enough for nearly all renditions, though nearly 100% slower than
a more comfortable 16KByte or 32KByte pool (that was tested with
complex glyphs at sizes over 500 pixels).
d. Computing Profiles Extents
Remember that a profile is an array, associating a _scanline_ to
the x pixel coordinate of its intersection with a contour.
Though it's not exactly how the FreeType rasterizer works, it is
convenient to think that we need a profile's height before
allocating it in the pool and computing its coordinates.
The profile's height is the number of scanlines crossed by the
y-monotonic section of a contour. We thus need to compute these
sections from the vectorial description. In order to do that,
we are obliged to compute all (local and global) y extrema of
the glyph (minima and maxima).
P2 For instance, this triangle has only
two y-extrema, which are simply
| \ P2.y as a vertical maximum
| \ P3.y as a vertical minimum
| \
| \ P1.y is not a vertical extremum (though
| \ it is a horizontal minimum, which we
P1 ---___ \ don't need).
Note that the extrema are expressed in pixel units, not in
scanlines. The triangle's height is certainly (P3.y-P2.y+1)
pixel units, but its profiles' heights are computed in
scanlines. The exact conversion is simple:
- min scanline = FLOOR ( min y )
- max scanline = CEILING( max y )
A problem arises with Bézier Arcs. While a segment is always
necessarily y-monotonic (i.e., flat, ascending, or descending),
which makes extrema computations easy, the ascent of an arc can
vary between its control points.
# on curve
* off curve
_-- -_
P1 _- - A non y-monotonic Bézier arc.
# \
- The arc goes from P1 to P3.
\ P3
We first need to be able to easily detect non-monotonic arcs,
according to their control points. I will state here, without
proof, that the monotony condition can be expressed as:
P1.y <= P2.y <= P3.y for an ever-ascending arc
P1.y >= P2.y >= P3.y for an ever-descending arc
with the special case of
P1.y = P2.y = P3.y where the arc is said to be `flat'.
As you can see, these conditions can be very easily tested.
They are, however, extremely important, as any arc that does not
satisfy them necessarily contains an extremum.
Note also that a monotonic arc can contain an extremum too,
which is then one of its `on' points:
P1 P2
#---__ * P1P2P3 is ever-descending, but P1
-_ is an y-extremum.
---_ \
-> \
\ P3
Let's go back to our previous example:
# on curve
* off curve
_-- -_
P1 _- - A non-y-monotonic Bézier arc.
# \
- Here we have
\ P2.y >= P1.y &&
\ P3 P2.y >= P3.y (!)
We need to compute the vertical maximum of this arc to be able
to compute a profile's height (the point marked by an `x'). The
arc's equation indicates that a direct computation is possible,
but we rely on a different technique, which use will become
apparent soon.
Bézier arcs have the special property of being very easily
decomposed into two sub-arcs, which are themselves Bézier arcs.
Moreover, it is easy to prove that there is at most one vertical
extremum on each Bézier arc (for second-degree curves; similar
conditions can be found for third-order arcs).
For instance, the following arc P1P2P3 can be decomposed into
two sub-arcs Q1Q2Q3 and R1R2R3:
# on curve
* off curve
original Bézier arc P1P2P3.
_-- --_
_- -_
- -
/ \
/ \
# #
P1 P3
Q3 Decomposed into two subarcs
Q2 R2 Q1Q2Q3 and R1R2R3
* __-#-__ *
_-- --_
_- R1 -_ Q1 = P1 R3 = P3
- - Q2 = (P1+P2)/2 R2 = (P2+P3)/2
/ \
/ \ Q3 = R1 = (Q2+R2)/2
# #
Q1 R3 Note that Q2, R2, and Q3=R1
are on a single line which is
tangent to the curve.
We have then decomposed a non-y-monotonic Bézier curve into two
smaller sub-arcs. Note that in the above drawing, both sub-arcs
are monotonic, and that the extremum is then Q3=R1. However, in
a more general case, only one sub-arc is guaranteed to be
monotonic. Getting back to our former example:
__-x--_ R1
_-- #_
Q1 _- Q3 - R2
# \ *
\ R3
Here, we see that, though Q1Q2Q3 is still non-monotonic, R1R2R3
is ever descending: We thus know that it doesn't contain the
extremum. We can then re-subdivide Q1Q2Q3 into two sub-arcs and
go on recursively, stopping when we encounter two monotonic
subarcs, or when the subarcs become simply too small.
We will finally find the vertical extremum. Note that the
iterative process of finding an extremum is called `flattening'.
e. Computing Profiles Coordinates
Once we have the height of each profile, we are able to allocate
it in the render pool. The next task is to compute coordinates
for each scanline.
In the case of segments, the computation is straightforward,
using the Euclidean algorithm (also known as Bresenham).
However, for Bézier arcs, the job is a little more complicated.
We assume that all Béziers that are part of a profile are the
result of flattening the curve, which means that they are all
y-monotonic (ascending or descending, and never flat). We now
have to compute the intersections of arcs with the profile's
scanlines. One way is to use a similar scheme to flattening
called `stepping'.
Consider this arc, going from P1 to
--------------------- P3. Suppose that we need to
compute its intersections with the
drawn scanlines. As already
--------------------- mentioned this can be done
directly, but the involved
* P2 _---# P3 algorithm is far too slow.
------------- _-- --
_/ Instead, it is still possible to
---------/----------- use the decomposition property in
/ the same recursive way, i.e.,
| subdivide the arc into subarcs
------|-------------- until these get too small to cross
| more than one scanline!
-----|--------------- This is very easily done using a
| rasterizer-managed stack of
| subarcs.
# P1
f. Sweeping and Sorting the Spans
Once all our profiles have been computed, we begin the sweep to
build (and fill) the spans.
As both the TrueType and Type 1 specifications use the winding
fill rule (but with opposite directions), we place, on each
scanline, the present profiles in two separate lists.
One list, called the `left' one, only contains ascending
profiles, while the other `right' list contains the descending
As each glyph is made of closed curves, a simple geometric
property ensures that the two lists contain the same number of
Creating spans is thus straightforward:
1. We sort each list in increasing horizontal order.
2. We pair each value of the left list with its corresponding
value in the right list.
/ / | | For example, we have here
/ / | | four profiles. Two of
>/ / | | | them are ascending (1 &
1// / ^ | | | 2 3), while the two others
// // 3| | | v are descending (2 & 4).
/ //4 | | | On the given scanline,
a / /< | | the left list is (1,3),
- - - *-----* - - - - *---* - - y - and the right one is
/ / b c| |d (4,2) (sorted).
There are then two spans, joining
1 to 4 (i.e. a-b) and 3 to 2
(i.e. c-d)!
Sorting doesn't necessarily take much time, as in 99 cases out
of 100, the lists' order is kept from one scanline to the next.
We can thus implement it with two simple singly-linked lists,
sorted by a classic bubble-sort, which takes a minimum amount of
time when the lists are already sorted.
A previous version of the rasterizer used more elaborate
structures, like arrays to perform `faster' sorting. It turned
out that this old scheme is not faster than the one described
Once the spans have been `created', we can simply draw them in
the target bitmap.
Copyright 2003-2018 by
David Turner, Robert Wilhelm, and Werner Lemberg.
This file is part of the FreeType project, and may only be used,
modified, and distributed under the terms of the FreeType project
license, LICENSE.TXT. By continuing to use, modify, or distribute this
file you indicate that you have read the license and understand and
accept it fully.
--- end of raster.txt ---
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