Understanding Frame

Frame is the king of layout. Everybody uses frames to position and resize their UIViews and CALayers. Throughout this post I’m going to focus my attention on CALayer, as this is the underlying workhorse of UIView and view.frame simply returns view.layer.frame. Moreover, I will not discuss the setFrame: setter. While the scope might seem very limited, it actually turns out there is a lot of fun stuff going on inside a plain, old frame getter.

What Frame Depends On

It’s generally understood that frame is just a derived property, and it actually depends on some other properties instead. There are actually four (!) properties that get taken into account when calculating frame: bounds, anchorPoint, transform, and position.

Let’s start with bounds. Bounds are tricky—they mix both the exterior and the interior of the layer. bounds.size defines the dimensions of the layer itself, declaring the area in which the layer exists. Setting masksToBounds to YES visualises this area by clipping all the sublayers that managed to escape the bounds. On the other hand, origin of bounds doesn’t affect the layout of the layer itself; however, it changes how sublayers are positioned within the layer. bounds.origin defines, well, the origin of the layer’s internal coordinate system.

Here’s a quick example of how bounds.origin works. For instance, let’s define bounds.origin as CGPointMake (20.0f, 30.0f)

How do you define the local coordinate system? Just slap the bounds.origin point on the top left corner of layer’s rect:

anchorPoint is a slightly different beast. First of all, its values are normalised to the 0.0 – 1.0 range. Getting values in units of “points” requires multiplying normalized values by the layer’s bounds.size. More importantly however, anchorPoint defines the origin of the coordinate system in which transforms get applied:

Transforming original layers (blue) with same bounds but different anchorPoints, changes the layout a lot (gray).

position is actually the easiest one. It defines the final translation that is added to the layer after all the mangling with bounds.size, anchorPoint, and transform.

A Quick Discourse on Precision

While I was working on this post, I noticed my calculations where sometimes slightly off in comparison to what CoreAnimation returned. Either I was doing something wrong, or I had precision issues. Quite naturally, I opted for checking precision issues first. Fortunately, my gut feeling was right. While CGFloat on a 32-bit architecture is just a typedefed float (a double on 64-bit ones), it seems that CoreAnimation uses doubles internally, regardless of CGFloat‘s actual type.

Testing that wasn’t really hard. I jumped into Hopper, checked what frame getter of CALayer calls, and discovered a mat4_apply_to_rect function. Then, I set a symbolic breakpoint on it, which actually added two breakpoints on both CA::Mat4Impl::mat4_apply_to_rect(double const*, double*) and CA::Mat4Impl::mat4_apply_to_rect(float const*, float*), which would suggest that two execution paths are possible (?). However, while running on the device, it stops on the double version, despite using a 32-bit ARM iPhone.

It’s clear that a visual difference between code using float and double would be noticeable only in some pathological cases. However, since our goal is to reverse-engineer CoreAnimation and receive exactly the same results, we should use doubles as well. Let’s define some very primitive structures that are equivalent to their CoreGraphics counterparts:

typedef struct MCSDoublePoint {
  double x, y;
} MCSDoublePoint;

typedef struct MCSDoubleSize {
  double width, height;
} MCSDoubleSize;

typedef struct MCSDoubleRect {
  MCSDoublePoint origin;
  MCSDoubleSize size;
} MCSDoubleRect;

It’s worth noting that deploying for iOS on a 64-bit would render our carefully crafted structs redundant, since on this architecture, CGPoint, CGSize, and CGRect use doubles anyway.


Before we dissect into getting frame, let’s get done with transforms. Although CALayer makes use of a full-fledged 4×4 matrix disguised as CATransform3D, it doesn’t really matter for the purpose of calculating frame. For this reason, I’m going to focus on CGAffineTransform instead, which can be easily obtained from CATransform3D by using everyone’s favorite CATransform3DGetAffineTransform.

Let’s get started with points. Transforming points using affine transform is algebra 101:

MCSDoublePoint MCSDoublePointApplyTransform(MCSDoublePoint point, CGAffineTransform t)
  MCSDoublePoint p;
  p.x = (double)t.a * point.x + (double)t.c * point.y + t.tx;
  p.y = (double)t.b * point.x + (double)t.d * point.y + t.ty;
  return p;

This implementation is based on CGPointApplyAffineTransform. It basically multiplies a 3×3 transform matrix by a 3-dimensional vector.

matrix multiplication

The matrix is filled with values of CGAffineTransform, and the multiplied vector consists of the point’s x coordinate, y coordinate, and 1.0, causing the resulting vector to get translation components from the matrix as well.

Using point transformations, we can easily transform rectangles—applying transform to the rect’s corners and connecting them with lines creates a parallelogram (in a general case, it can be any quad). However, this is not how CGRectApplyAffineTransform works. This function takes a CGRect and returns a CGRect. As the comment inside CGAffineTransform.h header claims,

Since affine transforms do not preserve rectangles in general, this function returns the smallest rectangle that contains the transformed corner points of rect.

Having read that, recreating CGRectApplyAffineTransform using doubles is relatively straightforward:

MCSDoubleRect MCSDoubleRectApplyTransform(MCSDoubleRect rect, CGAffineTransform transform)
  double xMin = rect.origin.x;
  double xMax = rect.origin.x + rect.size.width;
  double yMin = rect.origin.y;
  double yMax = rect.origin.y + rect.size.height;

  MCSDoublePoint points[4] = {
    [0] = MCSDoublePointApplyTransform((MCSDoublePoint){xMin, yMin}, transform),
    [1] = MCSDoublePointApplyTransform((MCSDoublePoint){xMin, yMax}, transform),
    [2] = MCSDoublePointApplyTransform((MCSDoublePoint){xMax, yMin}, transform),
    [3] = MCSDoublePointApplyTransform((MCSDoublePoint){xMax, yMax}, transform),

  double newXMin =  INFINITY;
  double newXMax = -INFINITY;
  double newYMin =  INFINITY;
  double newYMax = -INFINITY;

  for (int i = 0; i < 4; i++) {
    newXMax = MAX(newXMax, points[i].x);
    newYMax = MAX(newYMax, points[i].y);
    newXMin = MIN(newXMin, points[i].x);
    newYMin = MIN(newYMin, points[i].y);

  MCSDoubleRect result = {newXMin, newYMin, newXMax - newXMin, newYMax - newYMin};

  return result;

We calculate the coordinates of all four corner points; we transform them and get the extreme values for both the x and y axes.

Calculating Frame

Now that we've come through all this effort to understand everything that matters, deriving frame is going to be a blast:

  • Define a rect with a size of bounds.size
  • Calculate the position of the anchorPoint within this rect
  • Place the rect inside a coordinate system, putting its anchorPoint at the system's origin
  • Apply whatever crazy transform you have, and keep "the smallest rectangle that contains the transformed corner points"
  • Offset the anchorPoint by position
  • Your frame is in gray.

Here's the code that does all this:

- (CGRect)frameWithBounds:(CGRect)bounds anchorPoint:(CGPoint)anchorPoint transform:(CATransform3D)transform position:(CGPoint)position
  MCSDoubleRect rect;

  rect.size.width = bounds.size.width;
  rect.size.height = bounds.size.height;
  rect.origin.x = (double)-bounds.size.width * anchorPoint.x;
  rect.origin.y = (double)-bounds.size.height * anchorPoint.y;

  rect = MCSDoubleRectApplyTransform(rect, CATransform3DGetAffineTransform(transform));

  rect.origin.x += position.x;
  rect.origin.y += position.y;

  return CGRectMake(rect.origin.x, rect.origin.y, rect.size.width, rect.size.height);

While it's not many lines of code, it makes use of all the concepts we've discussed.

How This Maps to UIView

In terms of getters for frame, bounds, and center, UIView doesn't really do any work at all; it simply calls its backing CALayer methods frame, bounds, and position, respectively.

Note that the center maps to position—this means that changing the underlying layer’s anchorPoint makes the center technically incorrect, as it doesn't correspond to the layer's "center," or “point in the middle”, of the layer's bounding rect.

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