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Building VTK

Table of Contents

  1. Linux Getting Started
  2. Obtaining the source
  3. Building
    1. Prerequisites
      1. Installing CMake
      2. Installing Qt
    2. Optional Additions
      1. Download And Install ffmpeg movie libraries
      2. MPI
      3. Python
      4. OSMesa
  4. Creating the Build Environment
    1. Linux (Ubuntu/Debian)
    2. Windows
  5. Building
    1. Missing dependencies
    2. Build Settings
      1. Mobile devices
      2. Python wheels
  6. Building documentation

This page describes how to build and install VTK. It covers building for development, on both Unix-type systems (Linux, HP-UX, Solaris, macOS), and Windows. Note that Unix-like environments such as Cygwin and MinGW are not officially supported. However, patches to fix problems with these platforms will be considered for inclusion. It is recommended that users which require VTK to work on these platforms to submit nightly testing results for them.

A full-featured build of VTK depends on several open source tools and libraries such as Python, Qt, CGNS, HDF5, etc. Some of these are included in the VTK source itself (e.g., HDF5), while others are expected to be present on the machine on which VTK is being built (e.g., Python, Qt).

Linux Getting Started

For new users of VTK or those wanting a quick setup on linux, these instructions will be useful:

Once you get everything working, don't forget to come back and read the rest of this document.

Obtaining the source

To obtain VTK's sources locally, clone this repository using Git.

git clone --recursive


VTK supports all of the common generators supported by CMake. The Ninja, Makefiles, and Visual Studio generators are the most well-tested however.

Note that VTK does not support in-source builds, so you must have a build tree that is not the source tree.


VTK only requires a few packages in order to build in general, however specific features may require additional packages to be provided to VTK's build configuration.


  • CMake
    • Version 3.12 or newer, however, the latest version is always recommended
  • Supported compiler
    • GCC 4.8 or newer
    • Clang 3.3 or newer
    • Apple Clang 7.0 (from Xcode 7.2.1) or newer
    • Microsoft Visual Studio 2015 or newer
    • Intel 14.0 or newer

Optional dependencies:

  • Python
    • When using Python 2, at least 2.7 is required
    • When using Python 3, at least 3.4 is required
  • Qt5
    • Version 5.9 or newer

Installing CMake

CMake is a tool that makes cross-platform building simple. On several systems it will probably be already installed or available through system package management utilities. If it is not, there are precompiled binaries available on CMake's download page.

Installing Qt

VTK uses Qt as its GUI library (if the relevant modules are enabled). Precompiled binaries are available on Qt's website.

Note that on Windows, the compiler used for building VTK must match the compiler version used to build Qt.

Optional Additions

Download And Install ffmpeg movie libraries

When the ability to write .avi files is desired, and writing these files is not supported by the OS, VTK can use the ffmpeg library. This is generally true for Unix-like operating systems. Source code for ffmpeg can be obtained from the website.


To run VTK in parallel, an MPI implementation is required. If an MPI implementation that exploits special interconnect hardware is provided on your system, we suggest using it for optimal performance. Otherwise, on Linux/Mac, we suggest either OpenMPI or MPICH. On Windows, Microsoft MPI is required.


In order to use scripting, Python is required (versions 2.7 and 3.3).


Off-screen Mesa can be used as a software-renderer for running VTK on a server without hardware OpenGL acceleration. This is usually available in system packages on Linux. For example, the libosmesa6-dev package on Debian and Ubuntu. However, for older machines, building a newer version of Mesa is likely necessary for bug fixes and support. Its source and build instructions can be found on its website.

Creating the Build Environment

Linux (Ubuntu/Debian)

  • sudo apt install the following packages:
    • build-essential
    • cmake
    • mesa-common-dev
    • mesa-utils
    • freeglut3-dev
    • ninja-build
      • ninja is a speedy replacement for make, highly recommended.


  • Visual Studio Community Edition
  • Use "x64 Native Tools Command Prompt" for the installed Visual Studio version to configure with CMake and to build with ninja.
  • Get ninja. Unzip the binary and put it in PATH. Note that newer Visual Studio releases come with a version of ninja already and should already exist in PATH within the command prompt.


In order to build, CMake requires two steps, configure and build. VTK itself does not support what are known as in-source builds, so the first step is to create a build directory.

mkdir -p vtk/build
cd vtk/build
ccmake ../path/to/vtk/source # -GNinja may be added to use the Ninja generator

CMake's GUI has input entries for the build directory and the generator already. Note that on Windows, the GUI must be launched from a "Native Tools Command Prompt" available with Visual Studio in the start menu.

Missing dependencies

CMake may not find all dependencies automatically in all cases. The steps needed to find any given package depends on the package itself. For general assistance, please see the documentation for find_package's search procedure and the relevant Find module (as available).

Build Settings

VTK has a number of settings available for its build. The common variables to modify include:

  • BUILD_SHARED_LIBS (default ON): If set, shared libraries will be built. This is usually what is wanted.
  • VTK_USE_CUDA (default OFF): Whether CUDA support will be available or not.
  • VTK_USE_MPI (default OFF): Whether MPI support will be available or not.
  • VTK_WRAP_PYTHON (default OFF; requires VTK_ENABLE_WRAPPING): Whether Python support will be available or not.
  • VTK_PYTHON_VERSION (default 3): The major version of Python to support. Must be either 2 or 3.

Less common, but variables which may be of interest to some:

  • VTK_BUILD_EXAMPLES (default OFF): If set, VTK's example code will be added as tests to the VTK test suite.
  • VTK_ENABLE_LOGGING (default ON): If set, enhanced logging will be enabled.
  • VTK_BUILD_TESTING (default OFF): Whether to build tests or not. Valid values are OFF (no testing), WANT (enable tests as possible), and ON (enable all tests; may error out if features otherwise disabled are required by test code).
  • VTK_ENABLE_KITS (default OFF; requires BUILD_SHARED_LIBS): Compile VTK into a smaller set of libraries. Can be useful on platforms where VTK takes a long time to launch due to expensive disk access.
  • VTK_ENABLE_WRAPPING (default ON): Whether any wrapping support will be available or not.
  • VTK_WRAP_JAVA (default OFF; requires VTK_ENABLE_WRAPPING): Whether Java support will be available or not.
  • VTK_SMP_IMPLEMENTATION_TYPE (default Sequential): Set which SMPTools will be implemented by default. Must be either Sequential, STDThread, OpenMP or TBB. The backend can be changed at runtime if the desired backend has his option VTK_SMP_ENABLE_<backend_name> set to ON.
  • VTK_ENABLE_CATALYST (default OFF): Enable the CatlystConduit module and build the VTK Catalyst implementation. Depends on an external Catalyst.

OpenGL-related options:

Note that if OpenGL is used, there must be a "sensible" setup. Sanity checks exist to make sure a broken build is not being made. Note that on Windows, the Win32 OpenGL context is always available. Essentially:

  • at least one rendering environment (X, Cocoa, SDL2, OSMesa, EGL, etc.) must be available;

  • OSMesa and EGL conflict with each other; and

  • OSMesa only supports off-screen rendering and is therefore incompatible with Cocoa, X, and SDL2.

    • VTK_USE_COCOA (default ON; requires macOS): Use Cocoa for render windows.
    • VTK_USE_X (default ON for Unix-like platforms except macOS, iOS, and Emscripten, OFF otherwise): Use X for render windows.
    • VTK_USE_SDL2 (default ON for Emscripten, OFF otherwise): Use SDL2 for render windows.
    • VTK_OPENGL_HAS_OSMESA (default OFF): Use to indicate that the OpenGL library being used supports offscreen Mesa rendering (OSMesa).
    • VTK_OPENGL_USE_GLES (default OFF; forced ON for Android): Whether to use OpenGL ES API for OpenGL or not.
    • VTK_OPENGL_HAS_EGL (default ON for Android, OFF otherwise): Use to indicate that the OpenGL library being used supports EGL context management.
    • VTK_DEFAULT_EGL_DEVICE_INDEX (default 0; requires VTK_OPENGL_HAS_EGL): The default EGL device to use for EGL render windows.
    • VTK_DEFAULT_RENDER_WINDOW_OFFSCREEN (default OFF): Whether to default to offscreen render windows by default or not.
    • VTK_USE_OPENGL_DELAYED_LOAD (default OFF; requires Windows and CMake >= 3.13): If set, use delayed loading to load the OpenGL DLL at runtime.
    • VTK_DEFAULT_RENDER_WINDOW_HEADLESS (default OFF; only available if applicable): Default to a headless render window.

More advanced options:

  • VTK_ABI_NAMESPACE_NAME (default <DEFAULT> aka ""): If set, VTK will wrap all VTK public symbols in an inline namespace <VTK_ABI_NAMESPACE_NAME> to allow runtime co-habitation with different VTK versions.
  • VTK_BUILD_DOCUMENTATION (default OFF): If set, VTK will build its API documentation using Doxygen.
  • VTK_BUILD_ALL_MODULES (default OFF): If set, VTK will enable all modules not disabled by other features.
  • VTK_ENABLE_REMOTE_MODULES (default ON): If set, VTK will try to build remote modules (the Remote directory). If unset, no remote modules will build.
  • VTK_ENABLE_EXTRA_BUILD_WARNINGS (default OFF; requires CMake >= 3.19): If set, VTK will enable additional build warnings.
  • VTK_ENABLE_EXTRA_BUILD_WARNINGS_EVERYTHING (default OFF; requires VTK_ENABLE_EXTRA_BUILD_WARNINGS and -Weverything support): If set, VTK will enable all build warnings (with some explicitly turned off).
  • VTK_USE_EXTERNAL (default OFF): Whether to prefer external third party libraries or the versions VTK's source contains.
  • VTK_TARGET_SPECIFIC_COMPONENTS (default OFF): Whether to install files into target-specific components (<TARGET>-runtime, <TARGET>-development, etc.) or general components (runtime, development, etc.)
  • VTK_VERSIONED_INSTALL (default ON): Whether to add version numbers to VTK's include directories and library names in the install tree.
  • VTK_CUSTOM_LIBRARY_SUFFIX (default depends on VTK_VERSIONED_INSTALL): The custom suffix for libraries built by VTK. Defaults to either an empty string or X.Y where X and Y are VTK's major and minor version components, respectively.
  • VTK_INSTALL_SDK (default ON): If set, VTK will install its headers, CMake API, etc. into its install tree for use.
  • VTK_FORBID_DOWNLOADS (default OFF): If set, VTK will error on any network activity required during the build (namely remote modules and testing data).
  • VTK_DATA_STORE (default is complicated): If set or detected, points to where VTK external data will be stored or looked up.
  • VTK_DATA_EXCLUDE_FROM_ALL (default is complicated, but generally OFF): If set or detected, data downloads will only happen upon explicit request rather than through the build's default target.
  • VTK_RELOCATABLE_INSTALL (default ON): If set, the install tree will be relocatable to another path. If unset, the install tree may be tied to the build machine with absolute paths, but finding dependencies in non-standard locations may require work without passing extra information when consuming VTK.
  • VTK_UNIFIED_INSTALL_TREE (default OFF): If set, the install tree is stipulated to be a unified install tree of VTK and all of its dependencies; a unified tree usually simplifies things including, but not limited to, the Python module paths, library search paths, and plugin searching. This option is irrelevant if a relocatable install is requested as such setups assume that dependencies are set up either via a unified tree or some other mechanism such as modules).
  • VTK_ENABLE_SANITIZER (default OFF): Whether to enable sanitization of the VTK codebase or not.
  • VTK_SANITIZER (default address; requires VTK_ENABLE_SANITIZER): The sanitizer to use.
  • VTK_USE_LARGE_DATA (default OFF; requires VTK_BUILD_TESTING): Whether to enable tests which use "large" data or not (usually used to reduce the amount of data downloading required for the test suite).
  • VTK_USE_HIP (default OFF; requires CMAKE >= 3.21 and NOT VTK_USE_CUDA) Whether HIP support will be available or not.
  • VTK_LEGACY_REMOVE (default OFF): If set, VTK will disable legacy, deprecated APIs.
  • VTK_LEGACY_SILENT (default OFF; requires VTK_LEGACY_REMOVE to be OFF): If set, usage of legacy, deprecated APIs will not cause warnings.
  • VTK_USE_FUTURE_CONST (default OFF): If set, the VTK_FUTURE_CONST macro expands to const; otherwise it expands to nothing. This is used to incrementally add more const correctness to the codebase while making it opt-in for backwards compatibility.
  • VTK_USE_TK (default OFF; requires VTK_WRAP_PYTHON): If set, VTK will enable Tkinter support for VTK widgets.
  • VTK_BUILD_COMPILE_TOOLS_ONLY (default OFF): If set, VTK will compile just its compile tools for use in a cross-compile build.
  • VTK_SERIAL_TESTS_USE_MPIEXEC (default OFF): Used on HPC to run serial tests on compute nodes. If set, it prefixes serial tests with "${MPIEXEC_EXECUTABLE}" "${MPIEXEC_NUMPROC_FLAG}" "1" ${MPIEXEC_PREFLAGS}
  • VTK_WINDOWS_PYTHON_DEBUGGABLE (default OFF): Set to ON if using a debug build of Python.
  • VTK_WINDOWS_PYTHON_DEBUGGABLE_REPLACE_SUFFIX (default OFF): Set to ON to use just a _d suffix for Python modules.
  • VTK_BUILD_PYI_FILES (default OFF): Set to ON to build .pyi type hint files for VTK's Python interfaces.
  • VTK_DLL_PATHS (default "" or VTK_DLL_PATHS from the environment): If set, these paths will be added via Python 3.8's os.add_dll_directory mechanism in order to find dependent DLLs when loading VTK's Python modules. Note that when using the variable, paths are in CMake form (using /) and in the environment are a path list in the platform's preferred format.
  • VTK_ENABLE_VR_COLLABORATION (default OFF): If ON, includes support for multi client VR collaboration. Requires libzmq and cppzmq external libraries.
  • VTK_SMP_ENABLE_<backend_name> (default OFF if needs an external library otherwise ON): If set, builds with the specified SMPTools backend implementation that can be changed on runtime with VTK_SMP_BACKEND_IN_USE environment variable.
  • VTK_USE_VIDEO_FOR_WINDOWS (default OFF; requires Windows): Enable the vtkAVIWriter class in the VTK::IOMovie module.
  • VTK_USE_VIDEO_FOR_WINDOWS_CAPTURE (default OFF; requires Windows): Enable the vtkWin32VideoSource class in the VTK::IOVideo module.
  • VTK_USE_MICROSOFT_MEDIA_FOUNDATION (default OFF; requires Windows): Enable the vtkMP4Writer class in the VTK::IOMovie module.
  • VTK_USE_64BIT_TIMESTAMPS (default OFF; forced on for 64-bit builds): Build with 64-bit vtkMTimeType.
  • VTK_USE_64BIT_IDS (default OFF for 32-bit builds; ON for 64-bit builds): Whether vtkIdType should be 32-bit or 64-bit.
  • VTK_DEBUG_LEAKS (default OFF): Whether VTK will report leaked vtkObject instances at process destruction or not.
  • VTK_DEBUG_RANGE_ITERATORS (default OFF; requires a Debug build): Detect errors with for-range iterators in VTK (note that this is very slow).
  • VTK_ALWAYS_OPTIMIZE_ARRAY_ITERATORS (default OFF; requires NOT VTK_DEBUG_RANGE_ITERATORS): Optimize for-range array iterators even in Debug builds.
  • VTK_ALL_NEW_OBJECT_FACTORY (default OFF): If ON, classes using vtkStandardNewMacro will use vtkObjectFactoryNewMacro allowing overrides to be available even when not explicitly requested through vtkObjectFactoryNewMacro or vtkAbstractObjectFactoryNewMacro.
  • VTK_ENABLE_VTKM_OVERRIDES (default OFF): If ON, enables factory override of certain VTK filters by their VTK-m counterparts. There is also a runtime switch that can be used to enable/disable the overrides at run-time (on by default). It can be accessed using the static function vtkmFilterOverrides::SetEnabled(bool).

vtkArrayDispatch related options:

The VTK_DISPATCH_<array_type>_ARRAYS options (default OFF for all but AOS) enable the specified type of array to be included in a dispatch type list. Explicit arrays (such as AOS, SOA and Typed) are included in the vtkArrayDispatchTypeList.h while vtkArrayDispatchImplicitTypeList.h includes both explicit and implicit arrays. The implicit array framework is included in the CommonImplicitArrays module. The following array types currently exist for use with the VTK dispatch mechanism:

  • VTK_DISPATCH_AOS_ARRAYS (default ON): includes dispatching for the commonly used "array-of-structure" ordered arrays derived from vtkAOSDataArrayTemplate
  • VTK_DISPATCH_SOA_ARRAYS (default OFF): includes dispatching for "structure-of-array" ordered arrays derived from vtkSOADataArrayTemplate
  • VTK_DISPATCH_TYPED_ARRAYS (default OFF): includes dispatching for arrays derived from vtkTypedDataArray
  • VTK_DISPATCH_AFFINE_ARRAYS (default OFF): includes dispatching for linearly varying vtkAffineArrays as part of the implicit array framework
  • VTK_DISPATCH_CONSTANT_ARRAYS (default OFF): includes dispatching for constant arrays vtkConstantArray as part of the implicit array framework
  • VTK_DISPATCH_STD_FUNCTION_ARRAYS (default OFF): includes dispatching for arrays with an std::function backend vtkStdFunctionArray as part of the implicit array framework
  • VTK_DISPATCH_COMPOSITE_ARRAYS (default OFF): includes dispatching of arrays with a vtkCompositeImplicitBackend backend, vtkCompositeArray, as part of the implicit array framework
  • VTK_DISPATCH_INDEXED_ARRAYS (default OFF): includes dispatching of arrays with a vtkIndexedImplicitBackend backend, vtkIndexedArray, as part of the implicit array framework

The outlier in terms of dispatch support is the family of arrays derived from vtkScaledSOADataArrayTemplate which are automatically included in dispatch when built setting the VTK_BUILD_SCALED_SOA_ARRAYS.

WARNING: Adding increasing numbers of arrays in the dispatch mechanism can greatly slow down compile times.

The VTK module system provides a number of variables to control modules which are not otherwise controlled by the other options provided.

  • VTK_MODULE_USE_EXTERNAL_<name> (default depends on VTK_USE_EXTERNAL): Use an external source for the named third-party module rather than the copy contained within the VTK source tree.


    Activating this option within an interactive cmake configuration (i.e. ccmake, cmake-gui) could end up finding libraries in the standard locations rather than copies in non-standard locations.

    It is recommended to pass the variables necessary to find the intended external package to the first configure to avoid finding unintended copies of the external package. The variables which matter depend on the package being found, but those ending with _LIBRARY and _INCLUDE_DIR as well as the general CMake find_package variables ending with _DIR and _ROOT are likely candidates.

    ccmake -D HDF5_ROOT:PATH=/home/user/myhdf5 ../vtk/sources
  • VTK_MODULE_ENABLE_<name> (default DEFAULT): Change the build settings for the named module. Valid values are those for the module system's build settings (see below).

  • VTK_GROUP_ENABLE_<name> (default DEFAULT): Change the default build settings for modules belonging to the named group. Valid values are those for the module system's build settings (see below).

For variables which use the module system's build settings, the valid values are as follows:

  • YES: Require the module to be built.
  • WANT: Build the module if possible.
  • DEFAULT: Use the settings by the module's groups and VTK_BUILD_ALL_MODULES.
  • DONT_WANT: Don't build the module unless required as a dependency.
  • NO: Do not build the module.

If any YES module requires a NO module, an error is raised.

Mobile devices

VTK supports mobile devices in its build. These are triggered by a top-level flag which then exposes some settings for a cross-compiled VTK that is controlled from the top-level build.

iOS builds may be enabled by setting the VTK_IOS_BUILD option. The following settings than affect the iOS build:


Android builds may be enabled by setting the VTK_ANDROID_BUILD option. The following settings affect the Android build:


Python wheels

VTK also supports creating a Python wheel containing its Python wrappers for Python3 (Python2 wheels are no longer supported). This is supported by setting the VTK_WHEEL_BUILD flag. This changes the build directory structure around to match that expected by wheels. Once configured, the build tree may be built as it would be normally and then the generated file used to create the wheel. Note that the bdist_wheel command requires that the wheel package is available (pip install wheel).

cmake -GNinja -DVTK_WHEEL_BUILD=ON -DVTK_WRAP_PYTHON=ON path/to/vtk/source
python3 bdist_wheel

Any modules may be turned on or off as in a normal VTK build. Certain modules add features to the generated wheel to indicate their availability. These flags are not meant to be comprehensive, but any reasonable feature flags may be added to CMake/vtkWheelFinalization.cmake as needed.

Note that the wheel will not include any external third party libraries in its wheel (e.g., X11, OpenGL, etc.) to avoid conflicts with systems or other wheels doing the same.

Building documentation

The following targets are used to build documentation for VTK:

  • DoxygenDoc - build the doxygen documentation from VTK's C++ source files.