How to build convincing 3D landscapes

How to create 3D landscapes

Creating CG landscapes had until recently relied on a wide range of tricks, some borrowed from traditional analogue film and modelling, and others depending on complex cheats in 3D software that required a deep knowledge.

Today, however, the wealth of landscape creation tools is overwhelming. Most 3D packages now come with a sky system, which can create the light of a sunset in seconds. Procedural processes now exist that can replicate millions of instances of plant models or blades of grass to populate landscapes in seconds.

However, the trick to creating a natural landscape is not so much about the tools, it's about a true understanding of nature and how we perceive it, either through the lens of a camera or with our own eyes. Here are some scene generation tips to help you master the art of lanscape creation.

01. Use photos as reference

How to create 3D landscapes

Photographs are a good resource for landscape work

Photographs are a good resource for landscape work and can be used to create textures, or as stand-ins for mountain ranges and trees, as long as the camera doesn't move too much. Using projection mapping of complex photographs on a simple geometry can be a good way to add detail.

02. Decide on your software

How to create 3D landscapes

Terragen is photorealistic scenery rendering software

There are landscape environment 3D applications such as Terragen (pictured) and Vue. Vue xStream integrates directly into 3D apps such as 3ds Max and Cinema 4D. However, if you are comfortable with your existing 3D software, you can add natural objects in minutes with a plug-in such as xFrog.

03. Detail only what you need

How to create 3D landscapes

Be clever with assets and only create what will be in camera

Building landscapes can create a lot of geometry. Be clever with assets and only create what will be in camera, even if starting with more geometry - if you don't see it, you don’t need it. Only use high-res assets closer to the camera and proxy objects further away, where the lack of detail won't be visible.

04. Add sculptural details

How to create 3D landscapes

Reference is key; look at photos of rocks to add some sculptural detail

The majority of 3D apps come with some sculpting ability, and there are free options such as Sculptris and Blender. As with most things, reference is key: look at photos of rocks to add some sculptural detail, and use sculpting tools to help enhance large features such as mountain ranges or canyons.

Words: Mike Griggs (opens in new tab)

Mike is a concept 3D, VFX and motion graphics artist working across TV, exhibition and digital design. This article originally appeared in 3D World magazine (opens in new tab) issue 176.

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