ArcGIS Pro

How to make a 3D diorama in ArcGIS Pro

Last summer I had the amazing chance to spend a half hour or so with my son, Bear, collaborating on a little 3D elevation-extrusion illustration sort of graphic that I’d been wondering about. Then a bit later I saw a luscious bathymetric cutaway graphic created by Aldo Lopez for the GIS Day poster last year. It just looked so charming and tangible and made me feel like it was a small slice of the earth itself, in a way that a conventional map perspective didn’t. I wondered if I could make one of these things in ArcGIS Pro. After a handful of versions (like this illustration of weathered dome geology) to get the steps down to something simple and repeatable, I settled on this:

Crate Lake diorama

There is a lot of opportunity to customize what sort of graphic you drape into the cutaway walls of the landscape, depending on your area and goals. Gregory Buck made a version showing the Grand Teton mountains erupting from a cross-section of the moon. GI.Rahul Gawai drew in geologic layers beneath the Colorado River. James Wilson made a detailed volcanic cross-section of Mount Mazama. Jakob Hogenkamp made his two mountain-scapes floating handsomely on nothing at all. Wanmei Liang created a Mt St. Helens diorama with clouds and steam. Heather Sauerland scooped out a cube from the Owyhee Canyon. Dhaval Jariwala applied this trick to Kangrinboqe Peak/Mt Kailash.

Here’s how to make one…

0:00 Another low-production-value introduction, but hey.

0:10 I’m going to follow-up this video later on with something focused on making an undersea diorama, maybe like this one (a series with Jesse van den Kieboom who will make one using the JSAPI).

0:15 Here’s a cheat sheet if you’d rather just skip right over to making…

0:35 Add the “terrain” digital elevation model image service from Living Atlas.

1:43 A trick for extracting a georeferenced portion of the DEM.

3:35 Convert from 2D to a 3D scene.

3:55 Exaggerate the elevation to taste.

4:40 Set the ground background to transparent.

5:07 Open the 3D map properties and turn the “show stars and halo” option in the illumination properties.

5:29 Insert a layout and add the 3D map to it. Position to taste.

7:10 Coloring and shading the terrain.

8:25 If you want to add in a polygon, here’s how to do that.

9:46 Here’s how you can do an easy rippled water-line sort of effect for water polygons.

11:42 You are done with the GIS stuff. You can export now, or…

12:30 Add cool fake extruded sides to this thing by drawing sneaky little polygons! We’re hacking!

I hope you give this a shot. It’s so fun and I assure you you’ll be cranking out astounding little 3D diorama scenes all over the place. I’ve already been blown away by the things my fell map nerds are making. It’s a thing of joy and I encourage you to jump in.

Here is another version of this sort of thing where I make an underwater scene (slightly different and a bit more technical) in ArcGIS Pro, and then my colleague Jesse will follow that with how to make it using the JavaScript API!


About the author

I have far too much fun looking for ways to understand and present data visually, hopefully driving product strategy and engaging users. I work in the ArcGIS Living Atlas team at Esri, pushing and pulling data in all sorts of absurd ways and then sharing the process. I also design user experiences for maps and apps. When I'm not doing those things, I'm chasing around toddlers and wrangling chickens, and generally getting into other ad-hoc adventures. Life is good. You might also like these Styles for ArcGIS Pro:

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