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Reprinted from Computer Generated Imaging
London, UK, January 1997

Ain't No Mountain High Enough

Dean Street Post's Steve Horton explores the ups and downs of Digital Wisdom's Mountain High Maps mapping software.

When I was asked, in passing on the stairs, if I could jot down about 1,500 words about Mountain High Maps, I replied: "Sure, no problem."

So later the same day, in a 15-minute gap between a Mac session and a related Hal booking, I duly noted down everything I could think of, read it back to myself and, finding it satisfactory, sent it upstairs.

I received an intemal phone call the following morning to thank me for what I had produced but asking politely when the rest of it might be expected. "How many pages did you get?" I asked. "Two," the voice replied. "Well, that's it then," I said. "What, all of it?" "Yes, all of it," I confirmed. Pause for thought at the other end.

Now, although my understanding of diplomacy has never been my strong point, I did eventually manage to glean from the subsequent polite verbiage that my prowess in basic mathematics was being called into question. I was assured tactfully that it didn't matter however, "being an artist and all."

On asking my caller to cut the crap, he did (rather bluntly I thought), by saying: "Since when did three hundred words amount to fifteen hundred?" "But," I said, "I've said all there is to say." "Well, say something else," the voice commanded.

"But that's just it," I replied, "the beauty of Mountain High Maps is its simplicity-and there's another nine words for you." Tapping sounds at the other end: "So, only another 1,191 to go, then."

"Photocopy a bit from the manual," I suggested without a great deal of conviction. "Too dry and technical," said the voice, "and anyway, the photocopier's not working." "Oh all right then," I sighed, "but I want your calculator."

Mapping the Changes

I first got to know Digital Wisdom's Mountain High Maps package when I was working in Dublin. Any requests for maps for news and current affairs items were met with groans and the sort of grumpy muttering not suitable for the ears of children under 18.

The process of gathering in the source references was tedious to the point of being painful: putting the pages of an atlas under a caption camera, or running them through a scanner and then reconstructing them or, in some cases, deconstructing them.

The larger scale maps (continents, countries) were admittedly easier because often you could refer back to previous work and then adapt it for the current project. Smaller scale maps, and especially those of specific localities (to illustrate, for example, the scene of some dastardly crime) were harder-particularly if you needed to get rid of loads of irrelevant place names while retaining topographical features. More often than now however, relief areas and seemingly endless mattes had to be created by hand.

During a break from working on a title sequence that needed 3D globes, I split my Jaimeson's on the copy of Creative Review that I had been flicking through. While mopping up and trying not to look the complete idiot, I came across this ad for a maps package that appealed to my natural sense of indolence. The 3D artist that I was working with was equally enthusiastic and we bought it straight off. It seemed remarkably cheap for what we were getting and, at the risk of encouraging Digital Wisdom to increase its prices, it remains so.

Mountain High Maps has become a required part of the graphic designer's armoury. At first sight the package-consisting of two CDs and a reference manual-looks like every geography students dream: The pain of creating a map from scratch has been alleviated, and the risk of inaccuracy greatly diminished.

The CDs provide relief maps of continents (both as a whole and sub-divided into smaller areas), world projections, and views of the globe. Supplied with each of these maps are outlines, coastlines, ocean floors, mountain regions and river systems, as well as cloud and shade masks for the globe views. Also supplied are lines of longitude and latitude, political boundaries, ready-colourised political "patchwork" maps, towns and cities, shadow mattes, and so on. All of these files are provided in various formats allowing for both Mac and PC usage.

At Dean Street Post they are used on our PowerMac and then exported to an Accom disc recorder for onward transfer to our digital edit suites or Hal Express. Although the maps can, of course, be used as supplied, more often than not the brief for a particular project will call for them to be modified. Used in the main for broadcast title sequences and graphics, they can be put to uses other than the purely cartographical; relief maps and mattes can, for example, be used to give interesting textures to other graphics or even live-action footage.

A popular request is for the inclusion of a spinning globe in animated title and logo sequences. In a recent project for a worldwide charitable organization, the brief was to provide a spinning globe which decelerated to a standstill, and then opened out into a flat Mercator projection, showing the entire land mass. Mountain High Maps was used to create a realistic, flat artwork globe with a matte, and with a separate cloud mask. This was then exported to Hal Express where it was wrapped spherically around a ball and then rotated to create a realistic impression of the earth. The cloud masks provided by the package, which had been further treated in the Mac were then added as another layer, and shadow mattes from the package together with highlights from Hal, were used to colour correct the globe in an authentic manner. Finally, as the sequence was to be used for a worldwide video conference, still-frame versions of the flat projection, each with a particular country's outline magnified through a bevel-edged perspex effect tablet, were provided so that the location of any contributor calling in by a live satellite link could be displayed.

Another project involved zooming in from outer space all the way into a particular city. Adaptation of Mountain High Maps files facilitated the provision of elements for this move up until the cityscape itself. Having first made high-resolution maps of the planet, the land mass, and the country concerned, we then tiled them and exported them to Hal. In Hal it was then possible to link them seamlessly and globally, enabling us to zoom in and out without degrading the image.

As for the creation of simple maps, Mountain High Maps are, of course, ideal for things such as highlighting specific regions, cities and river systems, illustrating flight paths, and so on. The business of charting historical military campaigns has come a long way since the title sequence of Dad's Army was first broadcast. Also, high-resolution images can be produced quickly for print graphics and whizzed off down an ISDN link.

Due to time constraints, in the normal run of things the files are used in Adobe Photoshop. If, however, a high degree of detail is required, Adobe Illustrator is used: but this takes a little longer. The package also works well in conjunction with other workstations, such as Quantel and SGI Systems.

In the sense that, as far as the end user is concerned, no piece of software is ever perfect, there is room for the package to be improved. There are still a few physical areas of the planet where the detail is not as fine as the majority; the region around the Bering Strait, for example. Higher-resolution maps of these remoter and under-populated regions would be a definite advantage. These areas often feature in broadcast programs on subjects such as exploration, travel, adventure, and warfare.

Also, even higher-resolution maps than those provided would be advantageous for the most populated, and popular regions. Satellite shots of built-up areas and representations of basic geological features like the Earth's core and cross-sections of its crust would be helpful. And one thing I do find myself pining for at odd hours of the night is a selection of flat clouds masks, in addition to those that are spherical and intended for use with the globe views.

All that aside, Mountain High Maps succeeds due to its simplicity and speed of use. Available at a remarkably low price. It has cut out so much of the donkey work that, in some cases, half of the work has already been done for you before you even touch the brief. Clients are impressed with the package because they can look at something almost immediately and have the opportunity to change quite fine detail at an early stage. Sometimes left solo in front of a screen in the middle of the night, the biggest problem confronted is being 100 percent confident of the direction in which the world actually turns. Also, in those darker moments, you can work out your frustrations by adapting the files provided to create you own country, rule your own world.

The phone rings again: "How are you getting on?" asks the voice. "Fine, 1,506 so far," I say. "That's too many," it says. I put the phone down, and fling the calculator in the bin.

For more information, call 800-800-8560, 804-443-9000 or write Digital Wisdom, Inc., Box 11, Tappahannock, VA 22560.

Reproduced from issue 1/1997 of Computer Generated Imaging (UK)
©1997 Copyright Computer Generated Imaging, London, UK

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