Digital Landscape Creation 5: Terragen 4

Jan 04, 2022 at 05:00 am by -gToon


This is the fifth article in a series that will cover contemporary 3D landscape creation software. I’ll share my experiences with each one from installation to the final creation of a landscape scene. And, of course, links will be provided in every article. I hope to post every Tuesday of each week, although some applications will take longer than a week to learn and create with. You can read the introduction to the series here. 
 

Terragen 4

Terragen is an application that enables the user to build, render and animate realistic, natural environments whether it be a forest scene or a scene set in outer space. The program was created by Plantside Software. The first release of Terragen was in 2009 with Terragen 4.5 being the current version. The program is still in active development and the user base includes both amateur and professionals. 
 
Terragen is available in three different versions at present: The Free version (which we are using for this article), the Creative version ($299), and the Professional version ($599). There are also monthly rental options that start at $12 per month. The Free version is surprisingly robust and is only limited in export, layers, and some camera types. A full comparison of features is available on the Planetside website.
 
For the hobbyist, Terragen provides the ability to create beautiful and convincing images of landscapes both realistic and fantastic. Rendered output can be used as-is, or combined with paintings, 3D output from other applications, and other elements to create a final image. With the level of quality Terragen provides for landscape-specific scenes, renders can often be printed or posted online without further adjustment; its results easily stand alongside photography or output from other 3D applications.
 

Main Terragen 4 Interface

Terragen 4 Interface

Navigating the interface is simple, although the interface doesn't look inviting. The top toolbar gives you access to all the Scene Elements that go into creating a scene: Objects, Terrain, Shaders, Water, Atmosphere, Lighting, Cameras, and Renderers. Below this, there is a small Shader View window that gives you a top-down view of the entire scene.

When you select a Scene Element like Shaders, a corresponding Options panel opens up on the left-hand side of the interface. This is where you make adjustments to the Shader (and all the other Scene Elements). You also have the Scene Elements list which shows all of the various parts of the scene you are creating. This is just above the Options panel on the left side of the main interface. Both numerical and slider adjustments are featured.

You then have the main 3D preview window and the nodes window beneath it. It is recommended to turn off this view as it requires advanced skills with nodes to use. The 3D preview (all rendered from your CPU) lets you choose a variety of render settings including a ray-traced preview, adding atmosphere and lighting (or removing). Depending upon your CPU speed render times will vary.

Near the end of the tabbed 3D preview window are the Painted Shader tool and the Measurement tool. More on the Painted Shader tool later in the article.

Navigation is primarily through keyboard shortcuts, but there's also a circular button on the top right of the preview window that opens up to a tool that allows you to move the camera in any direction you like. One fact that is repeated in all tutorials is to click the "align the view to camera" button at the bottom of the preview window. This puts the camera at the view in the preview window so that you can render from this perspective.

Lastly, Terragen 4 uses your computer's CPU to render in the 3D Viewport. You have the option to use the normal 3D renderer, which is pretty good and fairly fast, or a Ray-Traced Preview, which is slower but shows more detail. Planetside recommends that you use the normal renderer for Objects and Terrain, but for Shaders, Clouds and Lighting, use the Ray-Traced renderer. They also recommend using a lower-quality image (by adjusting normal render settings) to check your work periodically.
 
Working on Dirt Shader nodes

Project: Create a simple lake

The Terragen interface is intimidating when you open the program for the first time. So rather than explore on my own (I had no idea where to begin), I decided to watch several tutorials on YouTube called TerraTuts. After going through several beginners guides, I started to understand the workflow. I liked the "Build a Basic Lake" tutorial, so this will be my project for this article. 
 
The workflow for this project is to adjust the basic terrain and then create a camera position. Once this is done, you create shaders for the terrain which is pretty easy to do (click the shaders tab and choose the shader you want). The shaders are like layers in photoshop. The shader layers to create are the Water layer, Mud layer, Dirt layer, and Grass layer. Once each layer is created the qualities of the layer are refined and different color, distribution, and fractal adjustment layers are added and refined. Then you add objects like grass/trees and adjust their distribution across the landscape. Lastly, you add an atmosphere layer of clouds, tweak the render settings and render out the final image. 
 
Adding Tree Objects to the scene
The Terragen interface is intimidating when you open the program for the first time. So rather than explore on my own (I had no idea where to begin), I decided to watch several tutorials on YouTube called TerraTuts. After going through several beginners guides, I started to understand the workflow. I liked the "Build a Basic Lake" tutorial, so this will be my project for this article. 
 

Project Workflow

The workflow for this project is to adjust the basic terrain and then create a camera position. Once this is done, you create shaders for the terrain which is pretty easy to do (click the shaders tab and choose the shader you want). The shaders are like layers in photoshop. The shader layers to create are the Water layer, Mud layer, Dirt layer, and Grass layer. Once each layer is created the qualities of the layer are refined and different color, distribution, and fractal adjustment layers are added and refined as well. Then you add objects like grass/trees and adjust their distribution across the landscape. Lastly, you add an atmosphere layer of clouds, tweak the render settings and render out the final image. 
 
Getting the terrain to look the way you want it to is very easy using Terragen's numbers and sliders. Shaders are more complicated and in the TerraTuts tutorial, I found myself going back over the adjustments several times to get it right. At one point, I somehow removed something and the entire scene was blank, so I started over. I realized then that this tutorial is more of an intermediate tutorial despite the "Basic" in the title. Also, since I'm used to seeing real-time rendering in apps like Blender and Unity, not seeing the results of my shader adjustments in the 3D preview was frustrating and made me think I had made mistakes. Eventually, through the stop and start technique, I began to see the results in my scene like what was shown in the tutorial.

Shaders and their refinements depend a lot on adding extra nodes like power fractal and distribution. These nodes allow you to spread things like mud or dirt over the exact areas you want them in the scene. I was impressed with the power of shader refinement in Terragen 4. I saw that with the right adjustments, you could create practically any variation you want in color, size, spread, and look of a particular shader.

Adding objects like the Birch trees and the Grass was easy (both are available from Planetside in free download packs). It's getting them positioned and distributed that's the hard part. I ended up having to add and remove these elements several times until I figured out how to position them correctly. At this point, I did a general render (took about a minute) to see what the scene was looking like. Check it out below. Note that I followed the tutorial and positioned these objects using coordinates, but I could have also painted them on the landscape using an easy paint shader.

Atmosphere creation in Terragen 4 is simple to add/adjust and the results are quite beautiful. There's a neat random seed button that you can press to get different versions of the clouds until you find the one you like. I wish the random seed button was part of the shader levels as well. Much simpler to just randomize than micro-adjust dozens of settings until you get the right look.

Rendering is pretty straightforward. You can run the ray-traced render while you are working, but I didn't find it worth the time to wait (1-3 minutes each update), so I just rendered the scene using the main render tab. For the final render, I used the main render tab and then a full path-traced render. The main render took 1.5 minutes to render on my NVIDIA RTX A4000 GPU and the path-traced render took 4 minutes. Here is the final render of the "simple lake" project. Not bad!

Final Thoughts

I think that the final render of the lake tutorial project is the best-looking scene I have created since I started this series of articles. The mud layer didn't come through like it should have even though my settings were just like those in the tutorial. I did something wrong along the way, I'm sure of it.

Terragen 4 is a lot of fun to work with. More so than any application I've worked with so far. The interface starts to lose its intimidating quality once you start working with it regularly and the workflow is pretty simple once you understand what to do. The power of the program is in the details of a scene. I didn't like the way the trees were distributed on my landscape, so I started working with the distribution node attributes and came up with something I really like through trial and error. I imagine once you have a real grasp of Terragen 4, adjustments will come naturally.

Although we didn't get into animation, Terragen 4 lets you animate a scene and there are some great examples on youtube. It's too bad there's no particle system in Terragen 4. Adding rain or fire would be a huge plus in creating your final scene. Here's hoping Planetside adds this at some point.

Since we are using the Free version of Terragen 4 export capabilities are limited . Terragen 4 Professional lets you export/import fbx of camera, lights, and nulls. The free version allows for the export of landscape as an obj file and a heightmap for use in other applications. I can see Terragen 4 being used in a compositing application where the models/characters have been created in another application and the sky/landscape created in Terragen 4. The compositor would put all of the elements together for a final scene.

A quick note about Terragen 4 and Planetside community/support: The website is excellent, the support features are very helpful and the community is active. Planetside is doing it right with Terragen 4. No wonder it's such a popular application. Sure, Vue can do a bit more than Terragen (I miss Plant Factory), but I just enjoy Terragen 4 more and if I have any problems or questions, I know I'll get help.

Lastly, Terragen 4 has a variety of ways to purchase. You can either go with a monthly model or purchase a perpetual license. Not many companies combine the two anymore. Another reason to buy Terragen 4 which is exactly what I'm going to do!

LINKS

 

Next Week: Digital Landscape Creation 6: Quadspinner's GAEA

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