The first thing I want to mention is that transforms are a completely different concept than either animations or transitions. Animations and transitions simply let you describe CSS values to change over time; transforms are just another few CSS properties you can specify on an element. The fact that these different specs are often used together is coincidental.
Before we start discussing transforms, I’d like to take a look back at what HTML and CSS were like before transforms. There is a document, described as a tree of nodes, usually written in HTML. There are also some style key/value pairs, usually written in CSS, which get applied to particular nodes in the document. When a browser wants to actually show a webpage on screen, it simply runs through the document, telling each node to paint. Therefore, nodes get drawn in document order. Because of this, nodes which occur later in the document appear to be on top of previous nodes. You can see this in the picture below: the blue square appears on top of the green square because it appears later in the document.
So, if you have two nodes, and you want to make one appear on top of the other, you have to simply move one after the other in the document.
<div class="square" style="left: 0px; top: 0px; background-color: green;"></div> <div class="square" style="left: 50px; top: 50px; background-color: blue;"></div>
But wait - shouldn’t the concept of things being on top of other things be a part of style, instead of the document itself? Think about what we just did: we just modified the document itself, just to change the style of how it’s presented. This is, conceptually, a bad move.
In order to address this, CSS has the concept of z-order. This is a CSS attribute which you can put on a div to change the apparent stacking of the elements. Positive z-order values mean “closer to the user.” Here’s the same example as before, but this time using z-order to change the apparent stacking of the boxes:
<div class="square" style="z-index: 2; left: 0px; top: 0px; background-color: green;"></div> <div class="square" style="z-index: 1; left: 50px; top: 50px; background-color: blue;"></div>
When a browser encounters a z-order, it’s important to realize that it isn’t actually moving things in the z-dimension. Instead, it just sorts items by their z-order before drawing them. This isn’t actually 3D; it’s just a reordering.
The reordering only applies to elements which have a z-order specified. If you don’t have a z-order, you’re drawn just like normal, as a part of drawing your closest ancestor who ::does:: have a z-order. Therefore, when you specify z-order on some elements, you’re partitioning the document into chunks, the chunks get sorted against each other, and then drawn in turn.
But what happens if you have two z-ordered nodes, and one is a child of the other? Do you just want to disregard everything except the shallowest z-order declaration? Coming up with a global z-ordering for the entire document would be very difficult to do for complicated pages. Instead, we want some way of making some sort of a namespace for stacking, where we can say that within a namespace, chunks will be sorted, but outside of a namespace, that entire namespace is treated as atomic. CSS does this with the concept of a “stacking context.” Using stacking contexts is a good way to encapsulate parts of a webpage.
In CSS, there are many ways to create stacking contexts. There are two straightforward ways:
- The “isolation” CSS property. All it does is create a stacking context on any element it applies to.
- Specifying z-order itself.
The fact that a stacking context is created any time you specify z-order means that we will never have nested z-orders in the same stacking context. Therefore, for any given stacking context, it’s trivial to sort chunks, because none of the chunks intersect.
Here’s an example of stacking contexts. Note that, if you look at the raw z-order values, the red square should be on the bottom and the yellow square should be on the top. However, because these two elements are contained within their own stacking context, they only get sorted with regard to each other. Then, the red/yellow combination gets treated atomically with respect to the outer stacking context.
<div class="square" style="z-index: 2; left: 0px; top: 0px; background-color: green;"></div> <div style="z-index: 3; position: relative;"> <div class="square" style="z-index: 1; left: 50px; top: 50px; background-color: red;"></div> <div class="square" style="z-index: 5; left: 100px; top: 100px; background-color: yellow;"></div> </div> <div class="square" style="z-index: 4; left: 150px; top: 150px; background-color: blue;"></div>
You can even think about this holistically with the concept of a z-order tree (which WebKit has). The non-leaf nodes in the z-order tree are stacking contexts. The leaf nodes are chunks of the document which can be rendered atomically. When you want to render a webpage, you can do a simple traverse of this z-order tree.
Alright, let’s now talk about transforms. Transforms are a paint-time property, which means they don’t affect the layout of content. (Web browsers use two passes: layout and rendering. Laying out content determines where everything should go, and rendering actually draws it. When layout happens, transforms are ignored. Then, just before we want to paint an element, we factor in transforms at that point.)
There are two kinds of transforms: 2D transforms and 3D transforms. 2D transforms are actually conceptually very simple - when you want to paint something, just paint it somewhere else. We’ve already got a 2D graphics context; we just need to adjust the context’s 2D CTM. No big deal. All 2D drawing libraries support CTMs. However, 3D transforms are a little more complicated.
If you have content inside a 3D transform, that content doesn’t even know it. Therefore, inside a 3D transform, there is a plane where content gets drawn to. This drawing is the same drawing that we do to draw the element normally.
<div style="position: relative; perspective: 800px;"> <div class="inner" style="position: absolute; transform: rotateY(20deg); background-color: green;"> Content </div> </div>
Outside the transformed content, however, we have to flatten the 3D parts into the frame buffer (eventually to be shown on the screen). This flattening needs to occur whenever we need to draw something with a 3D transform into a frame buffer
So what happens if we have nested transforms? Well, like I said before, content that is in-between the two transformed elements doesn’t know that it’s transformed; it just paints like any normal 2D element. That means, when we go to draw the inner transformed element, it will be flattened into the plane of the outer transformed element - NOT the plane of the root document!
This is the concept of a “3D rendering context,” similar to a stacking context. Here, each time you specify a 3D transform, you are creating a 3D rendering context on that element. Anything that’s drawn as a child of that element gets flattened into the plane of the context.
You can see that in the following markup. The blue square is a child of the green square, and both have a rotation transform applied to them. You can see that the blue square is being rotated, but we only see it after the rotation is projected onto its parent plane. This projection is the same operation that the green square undergoes to be shown on to the root document (our monitors). (Note that the flashing occurs because the blue and green squares are coplanar, so you're only ever seeing half the blue square at a time)
<div style="position: relative; perspective: 800px;"> <div class="inner" style="position: absolute; transform: rotateY(20deg); background-color: green;"> <div class="inner" style="position: absolute; transform: rotateY(20deg); background-color: blue;"> </div> </div> </div>
This kind of sucks. Every other place (modeling software, game engines, etc.) that describes a hierarchy of transformations doesn’t project everything into the plane of its parent. The reason why CSS has to do it is because we have to preserve the concept of a “document” which is 2D.
However, all is not lost. The CSS designers thought of this problem, and created another CSS property, transform-style, which gives you more control over which elements belong to which 3D rendering context. In particular, there are 2 values: flat and preserve-3d. Flat specifies the behavior described above. Preserve-3d specifies that this element (and its descendants) should belong to the 3D rendering context of its parent. With this value, no flattening occurs, and your descendants live in the same 3D space as your parent.
<div style="position: relative; perspective: 800px;"> <div class="inner" style="position: absolute; transform: rotateY(20deg); background-color: green; transform-style: preserve-3d;"> <div class="inner" style="position: absolute; transform: rotateY(20deg); background-color: blue;"> </div> </div> </div>
So, if you only want one 3D space, and all your transforms to nest inside it, specify transform-style: preserve-3d on all your nodes except the root one.