How to Turn a Google Map into a 3D Terrain Map in Adobe After Effects

Updated: Jun 3

In this episode of Monday Maps I’m going to show you how to make this cool 3D terrain map of Iceland using the Terrain Builder Pro template/script for After Effects. Here is everything I’m using in this particular tutorial -

  • Adobe After Effects v17.6

  • Terrain Builder Pro v9.3

  • Google Maps

  • Adobe Photoshop

My Computer Specs

Let’s take a step-by-step look at how to put this map together.

Step 1 - Launch the Project


Terrain Builder Pro is a premium After Effects template project that comes with a handful of cool map elements and a powerful script file. I won’t be touching on all of the capabilities of this tool in this tutorial, so be sure to go check out the product page here to see everything that it can do.



To get started I’ll first open the template AE project file and Save As to my desired location. For the Terrain Builder panel, I’ll go to File > Run Scripts > Run Script File and select the *.jsxbin file. Now I’m ready to start making my map.


Step 2 - Get Your Color Map


To create a super sexy 3D terrain map, I first need to get a super lame 2D map. For this, I’ll launch Google Maps, which I can do directly from the Terrain Builder panel. The Open Google Maps button is located at the bottom of the Main tab in the Find Real Maps section.


Once in Google Maps, I’ll navigate to the country of Iceland and open up the menu on the left. I’ll switch to Satellite view mode and then turn the Labels Off. Now I can close the menu and grab a nice full screenshot of my map.


Step 3 - Generate a Height Map



Now that I have the color map of my location, I need to get the height map. The Terrain Builder Pro script makes this pretty easy. Without moving my map, I’ll switch the Google Map view back to Map inside of the menu. I don’t want to move the map because it’s important that the color map stays perfectly aligned with the height map. Otherwise the terrain will be off once inside of After Effects.


Next, I’ll copy the URL of my Google Map and paste it in the Find Real Maps section of the Terrain Builder panel in After Effects. With the link in place, clicking on Get the Height Map will take me back to my browser with a new black and white image of Iceland. I will be using this as a displacement map, which will essentially use these luminance values to figure out how far it wants to extrude the image. White will translate to a higher elevation, while black will rest near sea level.


As I did with my color satellite view of Iceland, I’ll take a screenshot of the height map. Once again, it’s important that I don’t move the map around, as I want the height map to align with my color map.


Step 4 - Prep the Photos


Next I'll bring both of my screenshots into Photoshop as layers. Since I captured my screenshots the same way without moving the maps, they should align perfectly. I'll crop out everything except for the country, and then use the Patch tool to remove any unwanted text or other elements in the frame. I'll do this on both the Height and Color map layers. Now I'll export each layer as individual image files.


Step 5 - Customize and Animate the Map



Now I can jump back into After Effects to put my map together. The Main tab of the Terrain Builder panel has buttons to import both the Color and Height maps. Once imported, I can head over to the Terrain tab and activate the 3D Map.


Here is where you'll see the main issue with this product, which is how system intensive it is. It can take quite a long time just for the terrain to show up. When animating a camera, you'll need to switch into Edit Mode, which will flatten out your map. This allows you to quickly and easily work with the map. It's absolutely necessary when animating in the Camera tab.


Another feature that makes things so system intensive is the Terrain Shadow, which you can find under the Shading tab. Deactivating this feature will help speed things up significantly, but you'll lose the nice look. Using Terrain Shadow also leads to insanely long render times, the main con of this tool. Don't expect to make quick changes and revisions, as rendering out your final map will take many hours.


Pros

  • Works with older versions of After Effects

  • Incredible looking maps

  • Unique look

  • Simple User Interface

  • Beautiful map styles

  • Works with Cinema4D

Cons

  • System intensive

  • Long Render Times

  • It’s hard to tell what’s activated and what’s not. Once you activate shadows, for example, it doesn’t give any signification that it’s active within the panel. You have to eyeball it in the comp. And then if you try to change it, it can be so slow that you don’t know if you missed the button or what…

  • It’s not using geospatial data to specifically place elements

  • Placing elements vertically is a bit clunky


If you’re doing client work with rounds of revisions, get ready for a possibly frustrating experience. If you're making maps on your own, get ready to wait around to see your maps. But once they render out, they look SO GOOD.


Get Terrain Builder Pro for Adobe After Effects.


For Monday Maps, check out the playlist.


Stay tuned, as I’ll be testing out working with terrain in GEOlayers 3.


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