Digital Landscape Creation 6: GAEA

Jan 25, 2022 at 07:15 am by -gToon

This is the sixth 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. 


GAEA is a windows-only application developed by QuadSpinner. The first version of the program was released in 2019. It is a program focused specifically on landscape creation. There are four versions of GAEA: Community, Indie, Professional, and Enterprise. The Community version is free to download but has some limitations. This free version of GAEA is the one we will be reviewing here. The other versions are reasonably priced with the Enterprise edition selling for only $299. You can see a full comparison here
Founded in 2008, QuadSpinner is the conduit for sophisticated CG environments. We develop intuitive terrain design software to empower artists everywhere. Beyond tech innovation, we have also become synonymous with intelligent, streamlined UI. Design freedom within a simplified, modern experience is among our core values..

Main GAEA Interface

Working with GAEA

I had heard a lot of good things about GAEA, so I was eager to start learning how to create a digital landscape in this program. Compared to the other applications we've looked at so for, the interface for GAEA is very modern and easy to use (at first). You can create using two methods in GAEA: one is by using the traditional nodes graph and another is the layers method. Most users choose the nodes method. All of the available nodes are clustered on the left side of the screen and for the most part, are self-explanatory. The top center area is the view screen which, thank God, renders in real-time. No more tiny screens that render as you work like in VUE. Having real-time rendering is so much faster as you can see the results of your changes in real-time and then build on them. It gives you time to improvise. The nodes graph appears under the viewscreen and a properties panel appears on the right depending upon which node you choose. 
There are many preferences you can choose from when creating with GAEA. You can change the rendering scale from .5 (fast) to 8K (slower). Adjusting the sunlight in the scene is done with an icon of the sun. There is a split-screen mode where you have a top-down 2D image right new to your 3D image. I like the fact that QuadSpinner has done away with most of the traditional drop-down file menus in favor of icons. This makes it much easier to work (and faster, too)

Project: Basic Mountain with Terrain

Quadspinner, the creator of GAEA, provides excellent learning support for the application. The documentation is well organized and clearly written. They also provide a basic introduction to the application which I will include in this review. I chose a tutorial series by Andrea Cantelli who has an 8 part series of GAEA tutorials for beginners. His explanations and guidance are very useful and fun. 
The workflow for GAEA appears simple at first, but once you get into it the process is more complicated. You have two ways to work with GAEA: one is the graph mode (nodes) and the other is the layers mode (simpler, but less powerful). I chose to go with the nodes mode because I understand the concept of nodes and because Cantelli's tutorial was created with nodes in mind. 
There are two parts to this Basic Mountain project; the first is to create the landscape itself, and the second is to create the textures for the landscape. I suppose there is a third part, too, which is the exporting of the mesh and textures for rendering in another program. 
Starting with a blank canvas I added the mountain node. You can keep pressing the seed tab (which generates random versions of a mountain) until you find a mountain you like. The rest of the process involves using displacement, swirl, warp, and erosion nodes and then adjusting their properties. It is such a pleasure to see the results in real-time. Note that you can adjust the resolution to your 3D screen from .5K to 8K. 1K is the happy medium for me, although I kicked it up to 2K while working on textures. Cantellis says this is a good idea as you can see color separation better. 
Adding textures to the scene

Project Workflow

Texturing is another separate node line that is connected to the first using a Portal. A Portal is created by right-clicking the last node in a series and selecting "Portal". The soil node is the first in our series of texture nodes: by right-clicking this node you can select what portal to connect it to. What an interesting and simple way to connect the two node lines. I also added a Texture node underneath and connect it to the last node in the landscape series. Next, GAEA provides hundreds of SatMaps, which are texture combinations made from real terrain. I used one SatMap for the soil and two SatMaps for the Texture node. Following Cantellis's tutorial, I chose the textures he suggested and tweaked the strength of each one. Finally, I added a Slope node which I think is very powerful because with it you can adjust where the texture appears on your terrain. If you don't want the upper part of the mountains in your terrain to receive a grass texture, you use the Slope node to do this. At the end of the node line there are a lot of Combine nodes to add the Soil, Texture, and Slope nodes together. The very last node is the Vegetation and there are an amazing variety of vegetation textures included with GAEA. Again, I followed Cantelli and selected the vegetation he recommended.
Exporting the landscape mesh and textures was somewhat complex. It's not a File-Export process like in other programs. GAEA requires you to select the end node of each node line and send it to the build section. But this doesn't include the mesh of the landscape. For that, you have to choose the mesh node and connect it to the last node in the landscape series. There you choose obj, fbx, etc. The textures are broken down into height maps and color maps. You select your resolution (the free version is limited to 1024, but you can use higher resolutions but they come with a watermark and a few black lines in the landscape). Note that GAEA export is particularly good if you are exporting the terrain to be used in a game engine. There are even several levels of LOD (levels of detail) you can choose on export. 
Here is a screencap of my final version of the mountain tutorial rendered inside of GAEA along with the node graph.

Final Thoughts

I really like GAEA and the fact that they have a very good free version of the program is a big plus. However, the program is limited in that all you create are terrains. Lighting and effects are created in another program like Blender or even Terragen. Fortunately, the export functions in GAEA are very good and it's not a real problem to get your landscape into another program. And what might seem to be a limitation at first actually allows QuadSpinner to focus development in one certain area (landscape creation) and refine the workflow until it is extremely powerful (and fun).
GAEA is very easy to work with: Quick iterations of your ideas for a landscape, lots of interesting nodes. The program has a medium learning curve, although some sections take a while to understand. I got stuck on the "Mixer" node because it was used in the Cantelli tutorial but didn't appear among the nodes available in the program. I finally figured out that I had downloaded the "Bleeding Edge" version of the free GAEA and in this version, they removed the Mixer node and just used the Combine node. Once I figured it out (by looking through the documentation) the creation process flowed quite well. 
I think the node-based workflow is extremely powerful, but it takes a lot of experience to know which nodes are the ones to use for a particular effect. Initially, I wanted to create mountains like I've seen in China (tall, separate spikes of rock) and asked for help in the GAEA forums. I did get a response, but no answer as to what nodes to use to create these mountains. I suppose I could use trial-and-error to find the right combination. To be fair, the forums tend to be for more skilled users. 
QuadSpinner's GAEA is the most modern 3D digital landscape creation tool we've looked at so far, but the focus has narrowed to the creation of landscape only. Unlike, say, VUE there is no large collection of plants and flowers to insert into your scene. That being said the narrow focus of the program allows the developers to make a landscape creation process of great depth. No other program I've used can beat it for the price. 
GAEA is a fun program that makes landscape creation an exciting, creative process. By having real-time rendering in the viewport and by making the node structure obvious and fairly easy to use, you can create an exciting landscape in a few hours. The work comes in how you tweak the scene and that is what takes finesse and experience. 
I'm going to keep working on my mountain scene and import it into both Terragen and Blender for final rendering. I'll let you know how it turns out in a future article. 



Next Week: World Creator Revisited

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