ArcGIS Pro

How to make this 3D diorama of the Straits of Mackinac

The act of extracting a cube of the earth, seeing its mass and structure laid bare, removed from its global construct…is just, like, trippy. Here’s a fish tank-like view of the glorious Straits of Mackinac.

the Straits of Mackinac as a diorama. click to embiggen...

Here’s one of the Grampian Mountains of Scotland. I love Scotland.

the Grampian Mountains of Scotland as a diorama. Click to embiggen...

Here’s a look at the Delmarva peninsula, nestled between the Appalachian mountains in the background and the undersea Continental Rise in the foreground.

The Delvarva peninsula as a diorama. Click to embiggen...

While we’re making fish tanks of earth, here’s one of the Seattle/Puget area.

The Puget Sound as a diorama. Click to embiggen...


Here’s how you can break out a sharp cartographic edge and extract a charming little cube of the earth, in ArcGIS Pro…

00:00 Intro examples
00:24 Nelson nostalgia and diorama intro
02:08 Finding and clipping an elevation model
3:10 Lets go 3D!
4:16 Finding better archived imagery
5:04 Hillshade!
5:29 Water and watery effects
8:38 Arranging a layout and perspective
9:14 Drawing and styling the dirt curtains
11:34 Sneaking in an easter egg
12:48 Labels and title
14:07 Adding a locator map


Why would seeing a landscape fully removed from its environment—sliced out and dropped into empty space for examination—engage our curiosity and delight in a way that a standard whole landscape doesn’t? There are pragmatic reasons, sure, like opportunity to see some geological cross-sections. But I didn’t add any meaningful geological cross sections in these examples (unless you count the fossils I snuck in). I think when we see a diorama like this it echoes in our minds that what we are seeing is an intricate scale model. It becomes its own thing, rather than a snapshot of the actual thing. When a map perspective becomes enthingified like this, it brings along its own, however small, sense of mass and gravity. An entity in itself, rather than a facsimile of reality. And somehow when we feel we’re looking at a miniaturized extract of earth we can borrow that energy towards feeling that way about the whole earth. The earth, by extension, becomes enthingified.

A fish tank is a cube of water and gravel and creatures, at a scale we can wrap our arms and minds around. But a fish tank, as a small extract of the vast and complex chaos of the global ocean, bridges our sense of scale and lets us wonder and admire the whole. Via the portion.

I hope you give this sort of map a try. It’s terribly fun and the results, and how you feel about them, might surprise you.

Love, John

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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