No matter the weather or time of day at your local location, no matter where you live, you can travel the globe and the universe above with Planetside’s Terragen 4 from the comfort of your Windows or Mac desktop.
Terragen has long been known as both a consumer and professional terrain-generating app, used for projects ranging from “pretty pictures” for your desktop wallpaper to entire animated scenes in over 30 Hollywood-level feature film releases, in addition to commercials and even high-end video games. So what is Terragen all about?
Looking at the screenshot above, it’s easy to become immediately intimidated with Terragen, with its many tabs and sliders, and even nodes! For a long time I wasn’t sure exactly how it worked and what to do with it, since I’m a right-brained creative type and enjoy simple and intuitive interfaces. The Classic version (0.9, circa-2005) was a little more approachable and I did some decent work with it. But I found that if you break Terragen 4 down piece by piece and watch some online tutorials, you’ll get going pretty quickly.
Tabs include a Library collection of scenes and objects, where you can import pre-made scenes and various 3D models and combine them to make your illustrations (that’s how I did the renders shown here). Other tabs handle the overall Terrain attributes, Shaders (effects applied to terrains to create dirt, grass, snow, etc.), bodies of Water, the Atmosphere (clouds, haze, etc.), Lighting (placement of the sun and other lights), Cameras (for taking “photos” of your scene, either still or animated), Renderers (settings for the size and quality of the finished image) and the Node Network (an advanced form of connecting and managing the attributes of your project, and no, I haven’t used it yet…).
Each tab has its own very detailed sub-settings that give you incredible control over your scene and the items in it. That’s the good news. The bad news is, you’re going to have to rely mainly on other users to determine the best settings and how to use them, as documentation for Terragen has always been sparse and runs a bit behind each release. But for this we can forgive Planetside, as they are a very small company and focus their resources mainly on development. Third-party offerings are available to help, such as pre-made scenes and objects along with tutorials from New World Digital Artand Geekatplay.
The screenshot at top shows an unmodified cloud scene (in preview mode) from New World Digital Art’s Dutch Marine Atmosphere Pack. Such pre-made scenes are a great way to get started. The mountain scene above is an example using a scene from the Terragen presets pack and modifying it slightly (different camera angle). Of course you can entirely customize and/or replace everything in the commercial and sample scenes to make them even more unique, but without having to build the terrains and skies from scratch.
At left is a sunset scene from the presets pack that was originally a very wide view; I zoomed in in Terragen, adjusted the sun disk a bit higher above the horizon and rendered it. This exactly like going outside and using a zoom lens, except you don’t have to wait for the right time of day or appropriate weather or even leave your desk! Note the high level of realism in the clouds and sky.
Below you can see a scene “developing” (rendering) in Terragen, pixel by pixel. The more and faster processor cores and RAM you have, the better.
Below is another preset pack scene that I customized by changing the viewpoint, lighting and atmospheric conditions. I’m glad I didn’t have to actually go to this place to get the image! It lacks convenient infrastructure…
If you want or need to render images from actual locations (the Grand Canyon, etc.), you can download DEMs (digital elevation maps) from various sources, import them into Terragen and choose your viewpoint, edit lighting, etc.
By the way, you’re not limited to terrestrial scenes in Terragen. The illustration of the Saturn-like planet (above) from the presets pack shows Terragen’s otherworldly capabilities. There is also a complete nebula available.
In addition to adding real DEM terrains to your Terragen toolkit, you can also import common 3D models and place them in the scene. The render below began with New World Digital Art’s Road and Tarmac Pack V1. I changed the camera view almost 180 degrees from the default view, lowered the camera closer to the ground, adjusted the direction and intensity of the sun, and added 3D truck and plant objects. After the render was complete I post-processed it with Topaz Texture Effects 2 to add an overall golden grungy desert feel.
Tips for adding 3D objects to a Terragen scene: When you first import the object, it defaults to 0|0|0|0 coordinates. If your camera is viewing elsewhere in your scene, you need to right-click and copy those current coordinates, then paste them into the object’s dialog. Also, dropping the object to the terrain “lands” it in at a natural elevation, otherwise it floats or hovers unnaturally.
Hopefully this overview of Terragen 4 has gotten you interested in exploring the world of 3D terrain rendering. Start with the free version (which has some limitations, of course) and work your way up to the Creative or Professional versions. A free Educational license is also available.