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iOS Core Animation: The Layer Tree

This chapter explores the layer tree, a hierarchy of CALayer objects that exists in parallel beneath the UIView hierarchy that forms the iOS interface. Learn to create your own CALayer and add it to the layer tree as an experiment.
This chapter is from the book
  • Ogres have layers. Onions have layers. You get it? We both have layers.
  • Shrek

Core Animation is misleadingly named. You might assume that its primary purpose is animation, but actually animation is only one facet of the framework, which originally bore the less animation-centric name of Layer Kit.

Core Animation is a compositing engine; its job is to compose different pieces of visual content on the screen, and to do so as fast as possible. The content in question is divided into individual layers stored in a hierarchy known as the layer tree. This tree forms the underpinning for all of UIKit, and for everything that you see on the screen in an iOS application.

Before we discuss animation at all, we’re going to cover Core Animation’s static compositing and layout features, starting with the layer tree.

Layers and Views

If you’ve ever created an app for iOS or Mac OS, you’ll be familiar with the concept of a view. A view is a rectangular object that displays content (such as images, text, or video), and intercepts user input such as mouse clicks or touch gestures. Views can be nested inside one another to form a hierarchy, where each view manages the position of its children (subviews). Figure 1.1 shows a diagram of a typical view hierarchy.

Figure 1.1

Figure 1.1. A typical iOS screen (left) and the view hierarchy that forms it (right)

In iOS, views all inherit from a common base class, UIView. UIView handles touch events and supports Core Graphics-based drawing, affine transforms (such as rotation or scaling), and simple animations such as sliding and fading.

What you may not realize is that UIView does not deal with most of these tasks itself. Rendering, layout, and animation are all managed by a Core Animation class called CALayer.


The CALayer class is conceptually very similar to UIView. Layers, like views, are rectangular objects that can be arranged into a hierarchical tree. Like views, they can contain content (such as an image, text, or a background color) and manage the position of their children (sublayers). They have methods and properties for performing animations and transforms. The only major feature of UIView that isn’t handled by CALayer is user interaction.

CALayer is not aware of the responder chain (the mechanism that iOS uses to propagate touch events through the view hierarchy) and so cannot respond to events, although it does provide methods to help determine whether a particular touch point is within the bounds of a layer (more on this in Chapter 3, “Layer Geometry”).

Parallel Hierarchies

Every UIView has a layer property that is an instance of CALayer. This is known as the backing layer. The view is responsible for creating and managing this layer and for ensuring that when subviews are added or removed from the view hierarchy that their corresponding backing layers are connected up in parallel within the layer tree (see Figure 1.2.

Figure 1.2

Figure 1.2. The structure of the layer tree (left) mirrors that of the view hierarchy (right)

It is actually these backing layers that are responsible for the display and animation of everything you see onscreen. UIView is simply a wrapper, providing iOS-specific functionality such as touch handling and high-level interfaces for some of Core Animation’s low-level functionality.

Why does iOS have these two parallel hierarchies based on UIView and CALayer? Why not a single hierarchy that handles everything? The reason is to separate responsibilities, and so avoid duplicating code. Events and user interaction work quite differently on iOS than they do on Mac OS; a user interface based on multiple concurrent finger touches (multitouch) is a fundamentally different paradigm to a mouse and keyboard, which is why iOS has UIKit and UIView and Mac OS has AppKit and NSView. They are functionally similar, but differ significantly in the implementation.

Drawing, layout, and animation, in contrast, are concepts that apply just as much to touchscreen devices like the iPhone and iPad as they do to their laptop and desktop cousins. By separating out the logic for this functionality into the standalone Core Animation framework, Apple is able to share that code between iOS and Mac OS, making things simpler both for Apple’s own OS development teams and for third-party developers who make apps that target both platforms.

In fact, there are not two, but four such hierarchies, each performing a different role. In addition to the view hierarchy and layer tree, there are the presentation tree and render tree, which we discuss in Chapter 7, “Implicit Animations,” and Chapter 12, “Tuning for Speed,” respectively.

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