3D Studio Max, also known as 3ds Max, is an application used for designing three-dimensional virtual objects of many types, including terrains. 3ds Max offers many options for creating terrains. A basic one is to deform a plane with a height map. A height map is an image file whose color (or black and white) values 3ds Max converts to elevation data: whiter shades represent higher elevations; darker shades, lower.
Get or Make a Height Map
1. Height maps are fairly easy to come by, as just about any image file has different color values, making the image a height map. But if you want a true height map, look for something that has an element of randomness and a pattern at the same time. A JPEG photo of clouds is a perfect example of such an image. Choose photos with nicely textured, fluffy cumulus clouds. See the Resources section for various height map makers.
Create the Terrain Surface
2. Once you have an image file of a sky full of clouds, begin creating a virtual surface to map the file to. Open 3ds Max and create a simple plane. The plane creation tool is under the menu "Create" and the submenu "Standard Primitives."
Click and drag across the grid to define the initial plane, but then change its parameters in the 3d Studio Max Control Panel to have 100-by-100 units, and the same dimensions for the segments. This size is big enough to give some realistic detail to your terrain, while not so big as to crush your CPU--terrain-making can be extremely resource-intensive in terms of computing power.
Add a Modifier
3. Add a modifier to the plane to tell 3ds Max that you want the plane to hold terrain. Modifiers change some aspect of virtual objects. Select the plane, then select the "Displace" modifier from the Control Panel's drop-down list. Click the "Bitmap" button (which confusingly displays "None" on its face). Navigate to and upload your cloud height map.
No terrain will show yet, because you haven't configured the map. Do so now by increasing the "Strength" slider to anywhere above "1." You'll immediately start to see bumps--virtual mountains and valleys--forming on your plane.
Manually Deform the Terrain
4. The terrain may now need some manual tweaking. The program makes tweaking easy through its "Paint Deformation" controls. Access these controls by first adding an "Edit Poly" modifier to your plane object, then look for the modifier's "Paint Deformation" heading in the Control Panel.
Press the "Push/Pull" button to display a terrain paint brush that you can use to lower bumps or raise valleys. Drag the brush across the terrain to raise some bumps, then press "Alt" and drag again to lower the bumps. Set the strength of the brush with the "Push/Pull Value" slider, which is located under the "Paint Deformation" heading.
Explore the Parameters
5. You now know a simple procedure for creating realistic terrains. But take the time to explore the other parameters of the "Displace" and "Edit Poly" modifiers. This will let you tailor virtual terrains to your exact requirements.