Connor Holyday

An intro to WebGL and react-three-fiber

June 03, 2020

This is a series of articles that follow my journey with WebGL and react-three-fiber. They serve as both a reference for myself and a resource for anyone who is finding similar struggles in the world of WebGL.

Why WebGL

For anyone that’s not sure what WebGL really is, it’s a way of writing interactive code on the web (using a canvas) that’s somewhat similar to game development.

You have access to 3D models, materials, and shaders.

A simple way of explaining these parts would be:

  1. You have a 3D model which is a shape
  2. You apply a material to that model in order to give it some colour
  3. You can also choose to add some shaders. These are the brains of the operation, they dictate the rules and let you do all of the cool stuff.

The bit that I’m interested in is learning how to use all of this to enhance the experiences I build. If you go to any web awards it’s almost guaranteed that most of the winning submissions have some form of WebGL woven through; and these are the best examples that show the limit of what you can do is up to your imagination.

Why react-three-fiber

I’m using react-three-fiber because most of my work at the moment revolves around react (across any platform), however it’s not much different than doing it in three.js so the skills are transferable. I’ve decided to go down this route rather than starting from the bottom with raw WebGL/OpenGL because I prefer fast, easy results that keep me excited and having fun early on. Once I’ve gotten the hang of things I am then free to dive into the vanilla code at my leisure. A solid foundation of experience will make the vanilla code more approachable.

Getting set up

Start off getting a base development environment set up that matches how you like to code. For ease, I’m going to be using codesandbox to handle the environment. This means I’m up and ready with one click and I can publicly link to my work as I go.

The dependencies that you’ll need are:

  1. react-three-fiber
  2. three.js


This library handles a lot of the boilerplate of setting up a three.js project and bringing it into React means you can make use of both state and component goodness.

To start with, here’s the finished codesandbox so you can see what we’re making and have a tinker.

The basic explanation of how to write react-three-fiber code instead of three.js, is that everything is in camelCase. If we use something like pointLight as an example then things will look a little like this:

// three.js
var light = new THREE.PointLight(0xff0000, 1, 100)
light.position.set(50, 50, 50)


// react-three-fiber
<pointLight position={[50, 50, 50]} />

With this in mind, here is some basic three.js code that sets up a box. The steps are fairly logical in the sense that: we setup a box geometry (a box shape), we setup a material that has some colour, then we combine them both in a both in a mesh. This tells the mesh what shape to take (the geometry) and what to look like (the material).

// three.js
var geometry = new THREE.BoxBufferGeometry(1, 1, 1)
var material = new THREE.MeshStandardMaterial({ color: 0xffff00 })
var mesh = new THREE.Mesh(geometry, material)

In react-three-fiber it would look like this:

// react-three-fiber
<boxBufferGeometry attach="geometry" args={[1, 1, 1]} />
<meshStandardMaterial attach="material" color="orange" />

That’s the basics for setting up a simple 3D box and colouring it orange. If we wanted to make this re-usable we could return this from a function and have it be part of a normal React component. For the time being we’ll keep it as it is. Now in order to actually render it to the screen we need to have a canvas and some basic lights.

<ambientLight />
<pointLight position={[10, 0, 0]} />
<mesh rotation={[1, 0.5, 1]} scale={[3, 3, 3]}>
<boxBufferGeometry attach="geometry" args={[1, 1, 1]} />
<meshStandardMaterial attach="material" color="orange" />

If we walk through this step by step:

  • <Canvas /> sets up the HTML <canvas /> and handles the three.js boilerplate with a default camera rig.
  • <ambientLight /> provides generic lighting to the scene, like flicking a lightswitch.
  • <pointLight position={[10, 0, 0]} /> adds some directional lighting so we can see that our box is 3D. The position attribute takes an array of 3 numbers - these are the x, y, and z values respectively.

You might also notice that I’ve added some attributes to our <mesh />, this is just to make it a bit bigger and give it a bit of rotation so you can really see how the point light highlights that it’s a 3D model.

This is all you need!