To be honest, I had never attempt any CG-related terrain-scaping production before.  From memory, the only digital landscaping experience that I ever had was with Vue d’Esprit 3.1  (the early days version of VUE back in 2001).  It was a limited experience as I was not the kind of geek who obsessed with environment arts.  In fact, I always steered away from the “needs” for emulating the nature in all of my personal works.  The reason is simply because: back then, it was darn expensive (in terms of computing resource) to render a hyper-real landscape with a PC!

Lin Chou Cheng Tutorial Response to Bruno about Making Terrain with Autodesk Maya

Anyway, I would like to thank Bruno for brought this up, and I finally have the time to write about it.  There are many different ways to craft a terrain and the choice of a given method is entirely subjected to the requirements of a project and its targeted visual output.  Should the visual requirement of a terrain is meant for cinematic playback (e.g. 4K Resolution), then the terrain would need the highest level of details that a production pipeline could provide.  To create such highly detailed terrain, the workflow is going to be very complex as the process to replicate a nature environment that can stand for close-up shots is tough!  Although having said so, in general, there are two (2) main approaches to create a computer-generated (CG) terrain – the procedural method and the hand-crafted ways, and sometimes it could be the combination of both.

3D Terrain Creation Methods

In practice, it is nearly impossible to hand craft a “pixel-perfect” terrain, which has the scalability that can support close up views.  As what I had postulated in the Principles of 3D Game Art Modelling, my personal take is always about #3 Knowing The Limits : only build what your target audiences needed to see – no more no less, and this principle applies to the environment art as well.

In view of the nature for this blog, I shall approach the topic of terrain making from perspective of game art technique by leveraging the Tangent Space Normal map.  To do so, we would need to source for a texture map that can provide us all the geological details that illustrate a terrain.  This is because we are not going to use any of the sculpting tools in this sample assignment.

Prior to this experiment of terrain making,  I have a vague idea of attempting an alien or  extraterrestrial kind of terrain that is different from our world.  This inspiration has largely got to do with the game demos that I have played recently: they are Another World (1991) and From Dust (2011; the Chrome version),  both games were uniquely designed by the talented Eric Chahi.  To realize this vague vision of mine,  I begin with an image that released by the HiRISE experiment – an orbit shot from the planet of Mars that nearby to the region of Solis Dorsa (see below).

Mars Solis Dorsa Terrain Texture Normal Map

For the purpose of technique sharing and learning, I have prepped a portion of this super hi-res image into a tile able gray scale texture map before converting it into the format of Tangent Space Normal map.  You would need to download this normal texture in order to follow this 5-minutes walk through for making (or faking) a terrain.

Through the above YouTube podcast, I have demonstrated the usefulness of “Soft Selection” as an alternate terrain-modeling tool.  There are still lots of works to do if we would like make this sample terrain to be visually fit-to-use for a commercial production.  Nevertheless, this 5-minutes shortcut will give you a good head start for further fine-tuning the desirable outcome.  This visual-hack approach is also another useful rendering toolkit for art directing and creating a conceptual mockup.