I got the idea to try this back when the road to the Abyss opened. Jon and I stopped by Neptune’s and paroozed some Mt. Evans topo maps. On the drive home we talked about if it would be posible to convert a traditional topo map to 3D in Cinema 4D. So I started digging around on the web and quickly got confused. Much to my chagrin I was unable to find any good resources. I persevered, however, and figured out a cumbersome way to do it. Now that the movie has been released, I did some more research for the benefit of producing a tutorial and figured out a much easier way to pull it off. Ain’t that the way . . . check out the tutorial video and read on for more information.
Unfortunately there is no good one single go to source for digital elevation model (DEM) data. It comes in a lot of different varieties and formats. Sometimes unique to their purpose (Mars data = MOLA). It seems to me that the geology world is ruled by the Windows/PC market. PC users will have it much easier finding software to work with DEM data and I suspect a lot greater creative flexibility as well because more flavors of DEMs will be available to you.
This page had some good information about the different formats of DEM, their application, links to some sites to get free DEM data and links to some free software as well: http://www.terrainmap.com/rm39.html
This is the page in the tutorial with free 90m global elevation data: http://www.cgiar-csi.org/2010/03/108/
Here is a link to the national map viewer: http://viewer.nationalmap.gov/viewer/
You can download SimpleDEMViewer for OSX here: http://www.appdonkey.com/appDetail.php?app=SimpleDEMViewer
Windows users can try LandSerf (another DEM viewer): http://www.soi.city.ac.uk/~jwo/landserf/
And if you haven’t see the Abyss yet: