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Blender: Creating convincing terrains using height maps

4 MINUTE READ | November 12, 2014

Blender: Creating convincing terrains using height maps

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PMG is a global independent digital company that seeks to inspire people and brands that anything is possible. Driven by shared success, PMG uses business strategy and transformation, creative, media, and insights, along with our proprietary marketing intelligence platform Alli, to deliver Digital Made for Humans™. With offices in New York, London, Dallas/Fort Worth, Austin, Atlanta, and Cleveland, our team is made up of over 900+ employees globally, and our work for brands like Apple, Nike, Best Western Hotels & Resorts, Gap Inc., Kohler, Momentive, Sephora, and Shake Shack has received top industry recognitions including Cannes Lions and Adweek Media Plan of the Year.

If you have used 3d software in the past 10 years a program called Bryce3d may have passed through your toolkit. It wasn’t especially fancy or really good at organic modelling however it did serve one purpose. Modelling terrain and it did it well through the use of height maps and slope based textures. In todays tutorial we are going to replicate that behavior using Blender. Thanks to the additions of sculpting and more advanced weight painting Blender is now a very suitable tool for building out a terrain or landscape.

Step 1: Create a plane and subdivide!

The first thing we want to do is create a simple plane using Shift + A then add plane. This will give us our base mesh that we will work with. Next we need to subdivide it so we can increase the level detail later on. To do this press W while in Edit Mode. Increase the number of subdivisions to 10 and exit Edit Mode.

Step 2: Paint the weight

Next we paint the weight of the texture. Another way to think about this is the heavier the weight the taller the mesh will be. So we will want our low lying areas to have a blue color to indicate a lower terrain and the highest parts of our mesh will be red. When using the paint tool it will automatically default to Mix which will combine the weight your painting with the existing weight on the mesh. This makes it very simple to “layer” heavier weights on top of each other. Now lets add some weight to the outer edges this will be where our “mountains” are.

Step 3: Blur the lines

This part of the exercise requires a little finesse. Change the paint tool from Mix to Blur and start brushing from the tallest areas of the mesh (i.e. the most “red parts”) to lowest parts. This will blur the seams or sharp lines that separate the different heights of the terrain. Once your done the colors should blend smoothly together and have no abrupt color changes.

Step 4: Apply displacement

Now that we have painted our weights on to the mesh we need to apply displacement modifiers so the weights will transform our mesh. To do this switch to the Modifiers tab in the Properties Panel. Next add a Displace modifier to the mesh and select a Vertex Group to apply. If your following this tutorial then simple select the vertex group named “Group”. This was automatically created for us when were painting the mesh weights. After you select the vertex group you should notice the mesh transform. To have a more dramatic effect lets increase the Strength to 2.0 in the Displace modifier.

Step 5: Sculpt and refine the geometry

Sculpting will provide your terrain with the details that will trick your eyes into believing its real. With that said its important to spend time on this part of the process. Sculpting out details in your terrain might not sound like the most exciting thing but it will add the most amount of realism than any other part of this process. At this point its a good idea to have reference images of what your trying to achieve so you can emulate small details — like cracks in the ice or small outward facing cliffs.

Step 6: Prepare the final scene

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At this point you’ve completed the mesh! Hooray! All that’s left is materials, lighting, compositing, and rendering! Considering that’s a lot of material we’ll save that for future blog posts however if you manage to continue through you can end up with very nice results!

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