7 great ways to create CG landscapes

We pick the best terrain generators, world builders and scenery creators for creating the perfect CG landscapes.

This article is produced in association with Masters of CG, a contest for creatives in partnership with HP, Nvidia, and 2000 AD. Check out the shortlisted entries here.

The advent of virtual landscapes goes hand-in-hand with the advent of CG and fractal imagery. It was but a small leap from bouncing chrome balls on chequered floors to colourful vistas under wildly abstract skies.

The CG landscape is littered with the remains of terrain generators, world builders and scenery creators. A quick search on Google will dredge up all sorts of obsolete programs and forgotten websites with apps that only run under Win64 and haven't been updated for years.

But like the swirling fractals that bore them, the field keeps evolving and there are still some amazing tools for the creation of virtual worlds. Here are 7 of the best...

01. Vue

  • Price: £59-£1,307
  • Publisher: e-on Software

The current king of scenery generators, Vue d'Esprit first appeared in 1992 from French software developer e-on. At the time it was much like Bryce, creating the familiar, basic fractal landscapes; but while Bryce sailed down an evolutionary dead end, Vue has continued to improve.

Its ability to generate complex, photorealistic terrain has been supplemented by skies, atmospherics and vegetation – indeed the app is now in regular use by VFX companies to create the backdrops for big-budget movies like The Avengers, How To Train Your Dragon, the Pirates of the Caribbean series and loads more.

Vue has everything you need to make beautiful landscapes, and is available in numerous versions at different price levels, from the free Vue Pioneer edition up to Vue Infinite – which is available as a free Personal Learning Edition, so you can do as much trying as you want before you buy.

02. Terragen

  • Price: $199-$699
  • Publisher: Planetside Software

Another app that's been around for ages, Terragen first appeared in the late '90s, made it to version 2.0 in April 2009 and 3.0 was released in October 2013.

The program is a no-nonsense landscape generator that prides itself on its realism. It supports global illumination rendering and its output can be breathtaking when detailed scenery is partnered with naturalistic skies. It features multipass rendering, generates HDRs and can also export detailed landscapes for use in other apps (although the resulting files can be massive!).

Good results are relatively easy to obtain, but the artist-unfriendly interface and numerical, node-based structure means that it takes dedication and lots of experimentation to really unearth its power.

03. DEM Earth

  • Price: £270
  • Publisher: Cinema Plugins

We've included this plug-in for Cinema 4D – and coming soon to Maya – because it's unique, useful and unreasonably clever.

DEMs, or Digital Elevation Maps, describe the terrain of the planet with real-world data and can be downloaded and used to displace a polygon mesh. But finding them is tricky, and getting them to work properly trickier still. DEM Earth automates the whole process or you, by downloading data and creating subdivision surface meshes, stitching satellite imagery together to create texture maps and even generating representations of the larger buildings at the location.

The latest update can tile DEMs together to create huge unbroken terrains with relative ease. Whether it's for photorealistic representation of large areas, or for the rapid creation of vast fantasy worlds, DEM Earth is excellent.

04. World Machine

  • Price: $99-$249
  • Publisher: World Machine Software

This Windows-only app has been around since 2005, and has just been updated to version 2.3.

World machine lacks the scenery functions of other apps, but instead focuses on the creation of authentic-looking terrain – either as height field maps or polygonal meshes – which are then exported for use in game engines or content creation apps. It employs a node system, linking functions that determine the shape and slope of the land, plus the valleys, cracks and crevices that give the impression of being eroded by nature's forces.

You can sculpt the land pretty much as you'd like, and the resulting topology forms the basis for an entire world. You can navigate this landscape in 3D, and then select a region of interest to export for use in whichever app or game engine you prefer.

05. L3DT

  • Price: $35-$150
  • Publisher: Bundysoft

Product of a one-man software company in Australia, L3DT – or Large 3D Terrain Generator – is another app for the creation and editing of height maps. The user creates a rough design map for their landscape, and then app generates a basic height field.

From here you can add artefacts such as erosion, terraces, cliffs and so on, or go hands on and sculpt the actual shape in the 3D editor. The final terrain can be exported as a serious of bitmaps, with height, texture, normal, bump, and even shadow data for use in other apps or game engines, or you can export a mesh file or, better still, a whole serious of tiled meshes, for creating huge vistas.

06. TerraRay

  • Price: $10
  • Publisher: Synium Software

Compared to the other offerings here, TerraRay is right at the basic end of the scale. Looking like a throwback to the Bryce days of old, the app is simple terrain builder and renderer, enabling you to draw a height field map landscape and then add rocks, water and skies and the produce a global illumination render.

It's really easy to use and, with some work, create images that might be useful for backdrops or as the starting point for a more detailed matte painting. It's a shame the height field can't be exported for use elsewhere, but for ten bucks, it's not a bad intro to the art of world building for hobbyists or artists on a budget.

07. Bryce

  • Price: $20
  • Publisher: DAZ 3D

Developed by Eric Wenger and the infamous German artist Kai Krause, KPT Bryce first appeared in 1994 as a pure fractal landscape generator. It was then bought under the MetaCreations umbrella, and stumbled forward gaining feature bloat and becoming slower and buggier.

It was sold to Corel in 2000, which did little with it, and it was sold again to DAZ 3D in 2004. Version 7 of Bryce is now available as freeware, but it's unlikely it'll run on your OS unless you're still on Win7 or Vista or OS X 10.6 and lower.

So it looks like the venerable old app is finally on its last legs – which is a shame, as in the right hands it can make some good looking scenery. We felt it worth a mention if only for old time's sake.

Words: Steve Jarratt

Steve Jarratt has been in CG for many years. He's a regular contributor to 3D World and edited the magazine for two years.