TerrainTip – using digital elevation model in “Yellowstone”

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Drea's picture
Joined: May 3 2011

Alright dear friends, I thought I'd break this silence and share something cool I've been planning to share cool

I think everyone agrees that if there's something in Vue that – despite the recent changes – still needs improvement, it's the Terrain Editor. If you want to create detailed, complex terrains with realistic details like erosion, you have to use tools like World Machine or GeoControl.

In this topic I'd like to share another really cool terrain making technique I've recently learned from a fellow Vue artist Jonas Kampe (www.jonkam.net).  Here I show you how I used real digital elevation models (DEM) in my work "Yellowstone" (and several other scenes).

A DEM is a 3D representation of a terrain's surface, based on terrain elevation data. It works in a similar way as height maps.

1. Selecting your area
The first step is determining which area you want to render. The best way to select the area you need is going to Google Earth and getting the coordinates of that area. For this you need to go to View and enable Grid. When the lines of latitude and longitude appear, you can easily determine the area. Pay attention to minus and plus values, in my case the coordinates of those nicely eroded mountains by Yellowstone Lake are around -109.57 (W) and 44.18 (N).

2. Requesting DEM data
If you have your coordinates, go to http://seamless.usgs.gov/website/seamless/viewer.htm - this is USGS's database which covers the United States, including Hawaii and Alaska (for the rest of the world, browse http://www.viewfinderpanoramas.org/dem3.html). In the sidebar click on Zoom to a point (XY button in zoom options), and you can enter the coordinates. Click OK and it will zoom to the area you selected. 

If you don't want to use Google Earth, just go to Seamless Viewer, and in the sidebar in Query options you can click on Search for a geographical place (the binocular button), and after entering your location, a list of options will appear under the map, and you can select your location. 

After zooming in, you can select the area to download.  I used the Define rectangular download area (first button) and selected the eroded area I picked.

Be careful not to select too large area. Seamless will notify you if your area is too large to download.

After selecting the area, a pop-up window will appear (so it's important to disable your pop-up blocker laugh) with the list of downloadable data. Before downloading, click on Modify data request, then go to Elevation, select National Elevation Dataset (NED) 1/3 Arc Second, and request the data format in GeoTIFF.

Note: maintenance and updates are performed on this server quite often, so it can happen that after selecting the download area, you may get a message telling "There are no available products in the area that you indicated". In this case just try again later.

The download area will appear in some pieces in separate downloadable files; you can either download all or select the area you like the most (if the preview images are not broken, which happens quite often... :D).  After clicking Download, your download begins in a few seconds after processing your request. Save and extract your folder with the data to a directory you can find easily. smiley

3. Converting GeoTIFF using 3DEM
Before importing your DEM into Vue, first you need to convert it to a compatible format. For this you can use 3DEM, a free software that knows a lot of data formats, you can download it here: http://www.visualizationsoftware.com/3dem
Open 3DM, and select the DEM file type you want to open, in our case it is GeoTIFF. Click OK, and you can import the GeoTIFF file you downloaded from Seamless Viewer. This is how a GeoTiff looks like in 3DEM after loading:

For converting to a Vue-compatible format, save the file as USGS ASCII DEM

4. Importing DEM to Vue
After exporting your DEM, open Vue and load the DEM as object (important: do NOT import as terrain).  This is how my terrain above looked like in 3D:

The DEM functions as a large standard terrain; this DEM is 5,2 km × 4,5 km large. Since they are large and full of details, they are perfect for using in multiple scenes, from different camera positions.
Now the only thing to do is exploring the terrain, finding a good camera position, adding materials and ecosystem, tweaking the atmo how you want, and hit Render smiley.


Other scenes I created  using the same technique:


I hope you guys find this tutorial useful, and with these few steps you'll step beyond the limits of Vue.
Thanks for reading! smiley

KenM (not verified)
If I ever get some free time I'm so on this :P
ClintH's picture
Joined: Oct 24 2010
Fantastic Drea - Thank you!!
Anica's picture
Joined: Jun 2 2011
Wow, fantastic!! Go and test it out next weekend! :) Thanks a lot.