Thoughts on 3D Middle-earth
This is a fairly technical document on using 3D rendering for creating scenes from Middle-earth. Due to many other tasks also needing attention (including various work with my Tolkien Web Site ) I have not come far with my dream of creating a Virtual Middle-earth. Still, visions can be fun to share. At least it's a beginning.
A concept taking shape
My vision of doing 3D rendering of Middle-earth came from my background as a Web Master for Tolkien web pages. It started as neat idea about making an interactive map. In Web terms we call this an imagemap (IMAP). Its basic principle is to register where a user clicks on an image and via a map decide what web link is to be spun off. The map deals with rectangles, ellipses and any closed polygon - the latter giving you the freedom to outline almost any object in the image.
Peder's 3D map of Middle-earth, 68KB
So my vision was to make a breathtaking (of course) 3D rendered overview of Middle-earth. Using an imagemap the user could select regions, e.g. The Shire, and get a web page describing this region's population, geography etc. The gaming company InterPlay have granted use of graphics from their two Lord of the Rings games. This would make the hobby-horse Tolkien Encyclopedia much more attractive.
The other part of the vision is to build a continuous detailed terrain from the global Middle-earth map down to a town like Hobbiton. This can be done by taking the coarse grid of the full map and work on regions, adding noise and explicitly defined geographical variations through a Terrain Modelling tool. If this is obtained, prerendered fly-over-Middle-earth movies can be made or when the user selects a region he can zoom multiple times to get down to the smallest scale. At this scale the resolution should be able to view characters as tiny objects — with the peril of offending the Tolkien fandom in its explicitness.
Karen Fonstad's Middle-earth Atlas is very handy. She has done a lot of work on interpreting Tolkien's Middle-earth as far as facts allow, and her Atlas gives references to Tolkien's books to justify her view.
I was very fortunate to get in contact with Rob Aaldijk who had already done some 3D rendering in VistaPro. I got a Middle-earth height map from him, which saved me from a lot of work. Rob told me that the creation of this height field was a very laborious task — much because there are few complete tools doing what you want. Lifting ridges, making erosion and river beds takes time. A height field is just an image where the colour brightness of each pixel symbolizes the elevation. This gives you the basic surface. Now you must add textures, lights, clouds and rivers.
I used Povray, a very flexible rendering tool, but not user friendly. It is a free package. It is a general rendering package and this makes it far from trivial when you want to add trees, rivers or advanced 3D objects. It was fine when rendering the global Middle-earth map, but for closer views it is useless.
Two other landscape creation packages exist in addition to VistaPro: World Construction Set and World Builder. WCS seems to lack import of 3D objects (buildings, creatures etc) which can be a serious drawback. WB is terribly expensive, but also apparently a superior product. See their web pages.
[Note: 3D Nature tell me that WCS version 4.5 can import and render 3D objects, with powerful control over textures].
Places to visit
Rob Aaldijk's 3D Maps
Virtual Reality Lab's Vista Pro
3D Nature's World Construction Set
Animatek's World Builder
Persistence of Vision Ray Tracer
Preview of the LotR Movie with various scenes from Middle-earth
My Tolkien Web Site