Create Real-World 3D Terrain in C4D with DEM Earth


Animating maps can be a difficult and tedious process. Let’s learn how to expedite the process.

I’ve been creating cartographic visualizations in Adobe After Effects for the last few years, and many clients are asking for increasingly complex animations. There’s a growing demand for 3D visuals like detailed 3D terrain with extruded buildings. These elements are especially hard to pull off in Adobe After Effects, so I’ve recently jumped over to Cinema4D.

Why Cinema 4D, you ask? DEM Earth is the answer.

What is a DEM? 

The DEM in DEM Earth stands for Digital Elevation Model. It’s essentially the height data of a specific area, and it reflects the elevation levels of the bare ground. 3D programs use this data to generate beautiful 3D terrain. 

However, manually creating 3D terrain with DEMs can be a headache-inducing experience. Just check out my attempt inside Blender. That’s why DEM Earth for Cinema4D is such an attractive and powerful tool. You get to skip a boatload of steps in the mapmaking process.

So what can it do? Well, let’s have a closer look. 

What You Can Do With DEM Earth

Generate Landscapes

The real power of this tool is in the name. DEM Earth automatically downloads DEM data for you via the GeoCoder tool. Simply type in a location or a set of coordinates, and a new object will be created with the terrain already generated. This is fantastic, especially after experimenting with doing all of this manually inside Blender. 

Once your object is created, you can move around the earth via a simple click and drag or by manually tweaking the offset controls. Zoom in or out of the map via Area Zoom. To go to a completely different location, search for it in the Geocoder again. 

If your terrain doesn’t have enough detail, you have several options to boost the quality. First, you could crank up the subdivisions all the way up to 1000. You can also head over to the Data Manager dialogue box and switch the dataset to a higher resolution dataset (if it exists). 

To exaggerate the elevation of your terrain, check out the remapping section of the Object tab. Or, if you’re feeling crazy, crank up the Y scale. :/ 

Apply Textures

When adding an object, the material should default to one of several gradients presets. You can swap between existing gradient profiles in the gradient tab, depending on the topography with which you’re working. Or create something custom to fit your scene. 

To add an existing professional map texture, go to the Map Loader tab. You’ll first need to check the disclaimer checkbox, which essentially explains that much of the imagery is under copyright. It’s your responsibility to figure out what imagery you can use depending on where your content ends up. Sadly, this is still a significant obstacle to making map animations. 

Next, select the imagery set, and download the layer. There are various options from Bing, Google, Carto, Stamen, and others. To get higher-resolution imagery, bump up the Level number. 

Pin Objects to Your Map

Pinpoints are a big part of the DEM Earth workflow. They allow you to attach a 3D object to your map and have it dynamically scale and move along with the landscape. There are several ways to add a pin to your map. 

The GeoCoder tool has a Make a Pin button, allowing you to quickly add a pin after searching a location. In the example above, I searched the capital city of Dominica. Notice the new label. A PinPoint is simply an annotation that will not appear in a render. 

With my new pin on my map, I’ll add a map marker underneath the pin in the Object Manager and then zero out the coordinates. Voila, my map marker is perfectly placed and will dynamically move with the map. 

Oh yeah, and use the Route tool to quickly draw a path between two Pin Points. VERY cool.

Easily Download Map Features

Many of the tools in DEM Earth will allow you to pull data from OpenStreetMap (OSM) directly. If you’re unfamiliar, OSM is a library of open-source map data created and curated by users worldwide.

The Poly Object tool allows you to search Administrative boundaries and quickly apply them to your project. Use them to draw borders or mask parts of your map. They’re also excellent for isolating selections when downloading other OSM datasets.

In this example, I used the Poly Object tool to search the admin boundaries of Manhattan. I then used the Smart OSM tool to download all buildings (and just the buildings) inside these boundaries. Smart OSM can pull many features into C4D, including highways, waterways, etc.

With the building data applied to my map, I can now use the Smart Extruder to bring this dataset to life.

What’s incredible is how snappy the response is when working with this data. I can’t imagine trying to do something similar in After Effects with the Cinema 4D renderer.

Final Thoughts

I’ve only had a few weeks to play around with this powerful plugin for C4D, but I’m wildly impressed. And as you’d expect, I’ve only scratched the surface of the vast feature collection you’ll find in DEM Earth. To see all the features, check out the product page here.

Now back to my maps…

For more on 3D, check out the following articles.


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