Terragen for visualization

Terragen for visualization

Page Type Page Type: Article

Visualizing your mountain backyard

There is a great set of resources out there for building a virtual flyover of a real-life terrain you are interested in (see a sample picture of McMillan Cirque on the right). Combining free elevation data (DEM files) from the USGS with Terragen can create amazing and functional images. It is the next best thing to being able to fly over the terrain in a small plane.

I'll outline the procedure I followed to make the 5 minute film "Virtual Flight: The Picket Range." Click here to see it.
To avoid choppy playback, download the WMV file to your machine. Sorry, no QuickTime for my Mac friends!

First I had to get all the DEM files for the region. These files are:

Name USGS Code
This table was built from this link
Mount Blum48121g4
Mount Challenger48121g3
Mount Prophet48121g3
Damnation Peak48121f4
Diablo Dam48121f2

I loaded all those files at once into the handy (free) program 3dem, which has a unique capability to output the combined set as a Terragen terrain file. Now this large and high resolution region can be manipulated in Terragen to get a look that suits the season, time of day, and local vegetation. Frankly, I didn't spend much time on this. I was very impressed by the snow cover, sky, cloud and haze abilities. I wasn't patient enough to construct a good ground cover, so some of the greenery looks a little bright, and other areas are a barren brown.

Next, the Terranim program was used to construct virtual flights. The result is a batch file that Terragen consumes during the render step. I rendered images for television quality (720x480 pixels), and making this 5 minute movie probably consumed 2 weeks of my computer's time! Terragen spits out a series of numbered bitmaps (.BMP files). Now the Bink program is used to convert those bitmaps into a movie file (.AVI). (The uploaded movie is not so high resolution, but of adequate quality).

Finally, I imported the movies into Adobe Premiere, added some music and titles, and that is the end.

Software Links

Free DEM files for Washington State http://gis.ess.washington.edu/data/raster/tenmeter/byquad/index.html
Terragen software http://www.planetside.co.uk/terragen/
Terranim software http://terranim.ashundar.com/
3DEM software http://www.visualizationsoftware.com/3dem.html
Bink software (download the RAD Video Tools) http://www.radgametools.com/bnkdown.htm
Adobe Premiere (commercial, expensive) www.adobe.com/products/premiere/main.html

Update: It looks like the current version of Terragen requires registration to render from large terrain files. Alas - when I made the movie a year ago, I didn't have to do this. Registration is $99.00.


I took some screenshots of the programs at work during the creation phase of the Pickets movie above.

3DEM Screen shot3DEM generating a large DEM file.

Terragen Screen ShotTerragen doing it's work.

Terranim Screen ShotTerranim with a flyover in progress.


Post a Comment
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Aaron Johnson

Aaron Johnson - Mar 27, 2006 12:43 am - Voted 9/10


Members-Take time to view s this. It's great and at first it looks very real. Well done and good choice of music! A very unique article for SP!


mvs - Mar 27, 2006 5:56 am - Hasn't voted


Oh yeah, when I rendered the first scenes I was kind of amazed to recognize everything. I think it was Wiley Ridge first. Thanks for the encouragement!


Andy - Mar 28, 2006 3:42 pm - Voted 10/10


The first 20 seconds are amazing, but then after that it is a choppy set of still images. Is that what you intended? I'm gonna have to play with this!


mvs - Mar 28, 2006 4:14 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Wow!

Thanks Andy. No, it should be one smooth nice movie - no still images! I think it is better to download the WMV file to your disk, then play it.


Andy - Mar 28, 2006 5:22 pm - Voted 10/10

Re: Wow!

I'm still having trouble - but maybe that's just me and my computer.

Did you buy the full version of Terragen? Also, in your text above it would be nice if you expounded a little on the "...high resolution region can be manipulated in Terragen to get a look that suits the season, time of day, and local vegetation" section of the of your instruction. Seems like that's the big key ;-)

Also, in playing with it for 10 minutes I was having trouble getting my terrain file from Terragen into Terranim (Terranim didn't seem to recognize any changes I made with Terragen and it wouldn't show me the DEM in the flight path editor) - do you have any hints for this?


mvs - Mar 28, 2006 11:27 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Wow!

Hmm, okay I just installed the new version of Terragen, and was surprised (okay, disappointed) to see that in order to render from a large terrain file, like the stitched together DEM files for a whole mountain range, you need to register Terragen, which costs $99.00.

My experience with the surfaces, to get snow or vegetation was pretty "fumbly" so I did kind of gloss over it. The basic idea is to build a surface map in the Landscape dialog of Terragen. Create a surface named "Snow", and double click on it to open the Surface Layer dialog. Then manipulate the Advanced Distribution tab for altitude constraints and slope constraints. Create another surface map for vegetation, etc.

Probably the best is to consult the users guide (http://www.planetside.co.uk/terragen/guide/) to make the most realistic scenes.

Finally, I never saw the problem you are experiencing with Terranim. Let's follow up off-line and we can add a tip back to the page with what we learn.


mvs - Mar 29, 2006 11:36 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Wow!

Okay I figured out the Terranim thing. I had forgotten, but Terranim doesn't see the textures you apply to the Terrain file. That is not a problem. When Terragen renders your file, it will duly apply textures.

spicytuna - May 5, 2006 8:01 pm - Voted 10/10

Amazing !

After reading this article, I downloaded 3DEM and Terragen to create some 3D models of the mountains in my area. Unfortunately, our data seems to lack the (DEM) resolution required to make detailed models. My mountain range ended up resembling the mountains in that old video game Battlezone. Ok... maybe not that bad. :D

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