Why I don’t use Ultra Fractal

In a nutshell, it doesn’t do what Inkblot Kaos, Sterlingware, Tierazon or Xaos does. I want something that sprouts artwork after a couple of clicks. Ultra Fractal? It’s just too much work. Too many layers Too many moving parts. Too many moving parts that I have to move.

My first attempt at Ultra Fractal was three or so years ago. I don’t remember what version. I didn’t seem suited to it, but I didn’t think much about it at the time because I had plenty of other new fractal programs to work with. I didn’t know much about fractals in general, so I discounted my doubts about Ultra Fractal figuring I just didn’t understand it.

I picked it up again a year later because I had seen some really awesome artwork made by Paul DeCelle. I looked at Paul’s work and thought, “I want the machine that made that and I don’t care if I have to pay for it”. Well I downloaded some UF parameter files by Samuel Monnier (thanks, Sam) in hopes of getting some insight into the secrets of making these intriguing images. I have never seen anything take so long to render. It had something like 18 layers or parts to it.

Yes, some of you may be thinking, “Only 18?”. Well, I got Paul’s machine all right. What I didn’t realize at the time, but I have now come to understand, is the machine doesn’t make the artwork, the artist uses UF as a tool to make the artwork with. The program doesn’t come with an artist.

You see, that’s the whole problem. There’s no digital Rumplestiltskin inside UF like there is in most other fractal programs. Stop me if I’m wrong, but UF is all about layers, and layers are chosen and positioned by a human mind and not a computer algorithm, although an algorithm may have made each layer, separately. This may explain why there is very little really “freaky” stuff made in UF: there’s too much artistic control.

To borrow an expression from the Bible: Freaky is begotten, not made. It comes from chaotic and mathematical algorithms, not from human hands, not even talented human hands. (And your own skill and talent is the key requirement for making good artwork in UF.)

Even Gertrude Stein agrees with me. Here’s what she had to say about UF; “Freaky is not as strange as we can imagine. Freaky is stranger than we can imagine.”

Tim Hodkinson

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Colorful Desert

Before there was only sand and the Shat al Arab.

But now, plumes of color from the petro-chemical plants.

From oil comes the pigments and inks of modern industry, turning the sombre land into oceans of color.

The nets of the fisherman have given way to great cables of oil, shipping lanes and refinery ports.

The sea is proud to share its home with oil, and to see its shores touched with color.

If we could draw a map of the land of oil, we would not use sand and dirt, we would use our modern colors.

Tim Hodkinson

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I am Imbecile

I’ve really come to appreciate the great contribution that programmers make to the lives of us computer users, especially the ones who give their programs away, out of what I believe is just plain goodwill, and the joy of sharing their work with others.

I was working away with Fyre the other day and began to simultaneously praise it’s wonderful creativity and curse it’s lack of parameter files and the ability to do anti-aliasing.

Imagine my regret when I soon discovered how to save image parameters (so I could rework them later) and also to get rid of those revolting rough, jagged edges on curved shapes (ie. anti-aliasing – smoothing).

Not knowing much about how Fyre works (I think it’s an IFS, or flame thing, like Apophysis) I wasn’t exactly sure if it was even possible to save parameter files (the basic formula or underlying structures of the image). The menu options are pretty simple, although that also makes them easy to use, and I thought I’d tried them all.

While viewing a Fyre image in my image viewer, Konqueror, I suddenly saw it display some “meta” information that looked like all the variables used in forming an image. That looks just like a fractal parameter file, I thought, just a little shorter than usual -embedded in the png image file.

I knew jpgs could include information like a copyright notice, but I didn’t know pngs could. It’s just not an aspect of image files that I’ve ever had a need to use. I’d always wondered what the menu item, “Open Image” was for and so I opened my old image made in Fyre and instantly it was regenerated. I made some adjustments and was able to modify the image as if I had never stopped working with it. The saved png images contain the parameter information as meta information and all you have to do is reload the image to start working with it again. That’s pretty smart programming I think.

But the ugly jagged curves? I thought I would just have to do what I do with fractal programs that don’t have any built-in anti-aliasing: I would generate an image 2 or 4 times the size and scale it down 2 or 4:1, which is what anti-aliasing does, I think. Funny though, just below the two fields where you input the height and width sizes of the image that I wanted to change, there’s this “Oversampling” thing which has “1” as the default entry. I changed it to “2” (I tried to change it to “0”, but it wouldn’t let me). The image immediately regenerated, a little more slowly, and seemed to have lost all of its rough edges -it looked anti-aliased.

I don’t know why I didn’t experiment with the oversampling option. Its a common variable in many graphics tools. I guess I’m just used to seeing the label, “anti-aliasing”, and wasn’t thinking. I was almost ready to send off an email, telling the developers how great I thought their program was and wouldn’t it be nice if in the next revision they could just give it the ability to save image parameters and do antialiasing. If I was one of the Fyre developers, my response to an email like that would be, “Man! This guy’s a real imbecile!”

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Mondrian on Fyre

The way I’ve come to see it is that Algorithmic Art is like a sports league. Programs are the players of the sport and the authors of the programs, the programmers, are like the parents of the players. The operator of the program (artist) is the coach.

The job of the coach is to figure out what the program does best and get it to focus on those skills and leave its other capabilities alone for the time being. The parents may protest and try to tell the coach what their kids are best at, or what they were designed to do, but a good coach ignores all this and concentrates on making the team sucessfull.

In defense of the parents, they’ve done such a good job in making the program and building it’s inner workings that they can’t be expected to know everything the program is capable of, just as the inventor of something like the saxophone or electric guitar couldn’t possible envision all the different ways musicians would discover to play those instruments.

I’m sure the author of Fyre didn’t imagine it being used to make these frames and boxes. Fyre generally makes flame type images like Apophysis does, but in a much simpler way (so far). Being one-color really limits it’s creative abilities because color can add a whole new dimension to imagery. One the other hand, there’s a lot of really good photography that’s been done in black and white. In fact, the single color mode offers great opportunities for high contrast and stark surface textures.

The high contrast and surface texture of minimalist furniture and room partitions. The square compartments are similar to Mondrian’s famous series of colored-block paintings. Various types of wood-laminate display cabinets. Some even suggest rice paper sliding doors and partitions. Or steel window frames.

They’re very easy to make. You just keep pushing the random example button until you come to one that looks reasonably square, and then you tweak the A, B, C or D dimension to make it really smooth and sharp. It’s like arranging a pile of square pieces of paper. Then you adjust one or two of the other dimensions to move the inner frames and pieces around.

I’m not sure how I stumbled on these types of images. They look pretty bland compared to the regular big and swirly things that are Fyre generates. Maybe they are bland. I don’t know why I find these things so compelling.

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Island of Dr. Voroni


The Anguish of Fractals

I’m not sure what a Voroni diagram actually is, but I like to look at them. Honestly, it’s refreshing sometimes to work with something other than fractals. Fractals have this intense, endless quality to them that sometimes gives me vertigo. I just want to work with something simple like these “voronic” chunks of colour.

Actually, “voronic” as in moronic, is an appropriate description for these things. On their own, the Voroni diagrams are just casual assemblages of cut-paper. This makes them excellent raw material for sending down a guantlet of photoshop filters. India Ink by Flaming Pear works very well with them. A nice halo, or glowing outline effect can be contributed by Xero’s Illustrator plugin. Other than that it’s just a matter of altering the colors to produce a nice color scheme.

The program I used to make these is called Kandid, and has been around for a few years now. It’s a “genetic” art program that runs on Java, so it works with almost every operating system. When I started using it four or five years ago, it was just black and white and it’s best feature were its IFS clouds and fuzzy, misty things. The Voroni diagrams it had at that time, were only of academic interest.

Now it’s got too much color and I’ve found the best setting for Voroni creation is just RGB instead of the next, more sophisticated color method. Voroni creation. Remember the “genetic” art term I mentioned? Each Voroni diagram (ie. image) can be described by an underlying set of parameters, just like a fractal. These parameters are variations of several main features or variables and so you can adjust the imagery by adjusting the parameters that make them. On way to “adjust” them it to randomly combine two sets of parameters and creating a new image which is literally related to the original two.

That’s right, you “breed” your images with each other in order to develop their visual characteristics and create new ones. There can be horrifying side-effects though. If you use images that look pretty much the same (or might even be “clones”), pretty soon all the children look the same and in a few more generations, have grown big heads and start playing banjo music like the freaky kid in the movie, Deliverance.


The Faceless Widow

Anyhow, it’s quite entertaining to watch the mutations developing, but random results from pressing the random generation button are often just as creative as the interbreeding method. Fractals have parameters you can tweak, but the genetic method is purely graphical and relies on the results of random recombination, which is a much different way to work. There’s even an online database where you can upload and share parameter files from your gene pool of images made with Kandid. It’s weird.

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Bubble Ships

After playing around with Fyre for a week (no pun intended…), I’ve discovered that, like most creative programs (ie. they automatically make things) Fyre’s creative abilities are focussed on just a few options. You could almost say that it’s like a pyramid, where 80% of the menu options are there because they’re logical variations on the program’s main creative theme, but only a small group are what you end up working with.

I think these Bubble Ship, glass-eggs-in-a-kerchief, formation have some technical name because they all have similar structural characteristics. There’s another one that keeps popping up that looks like one of those square pillows that people put on their couches for decoration.

There are some very algorithmically appealing features in Fyre. The main one is the Random Parameters (Ctrl+R) button which is my all-time favorite when it comes to computer graphics. If the program utilizes a concept or mathematical function (ie. “thing”) that has many possible variations and details to it, then the random inputs can be extremely exciting. Yes, exciting.

The Bubble Ships are like this. Although the actual structures are very simple, the way they are rendered such that there is great variation in tone and combined in layers (layering almost always produces interesting results) produces a wide range of unique images. Furthermore, there’s an added effect from the grayscale rendering that gives the images a technical drawing, or engineer’s scrapbook (sure, engineers have scrapbooks) appearance.

All this then combines to produce these futuristic designs for a car or spaceship that looks like a streamlined bubble. One or two might look like a quilted pillow…

The one below I had on my desktop for a few days. I like to use my desktop as a sort of gallery of what I’ve done lately that looks good. I think it’s encouraging and also helps me to get a more objective impression of what I think is good by viewing the image in various other contexts throughout the day.

What’s strange is that the more I look at this one, the more I like it. To me it’s sails and clouds. The dark stretch on the bottom-right looks a bit like a distant coastline seen from a ship. The rising swirling lines suggest the heat of the day and the cloud formation and wind which comes from it.

You can actually adjust the images in Fyre as they seem to be made up of a number of smaller elements, similar to the images in Apophysis. By selecting the mysterious option, “A-B” you can move the inner pieces around in a way which resembles the moving of mirrors in a kaliedoscope.

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Fyre 1.0.1

Alright now, before you get all excited and rush out to download this great program… it’s only for Linux. Sorry. Once again, you lose. Too bad there isn’t some emulator that will allow Linux programs to run on Windows.

It looks a bit like flame fractals, like from Apophysis, but in gray scale. The more I look at them, I would say they most closely resemble finely-shaded, pencil drawings. Usually they’re just squiggles, but occasionally the program makes one that looks like a glass-walled chamber dissolving into wisps of smoke.

Or Spirograph revisted. If you run this program for very long, you’ll see there’s a lot of repetition. But it’s fast and simple to use, so it doesn’t take long before you’ve gone through a hundred more and found something interesting.

You can change the “paper” color and you can change the “pencil” color. Grey on white seems to be just perfect, though. Naturally I worked a few over in my graphics program, but I couldn’t do much with them that was any sort of improvement.

I discovered something quite interesting. After going through about 500 big images, I decided to try rendering them as small images. Strangely enough, these “things” usually look more appealing when they’re smaller. This raises some interesting issues with regards to algorithmic or generated art: presentation can be very important.

I like the little images with extra whitespace on the sides. Good presentation can make mediocre images look good and good images look great. I guess the viewer’s impression is the final result of many factors, including the frame and other presentation parameters. Annotation sure helps too. A beautiful anectdote can really make up for an ugly picture.

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Das Kafig des Dr. Caligari

The cages of Dr. Caligari.

No, I haven’t seen the movie. I wish I could have. I’ve wanted to see this movie for a long time, but all I’ve managed to see is some stills from it, and they look great.

Anyhow, I think Dr. Caligari does something bad, and there’s a lot of shadowy and boldly painted backdrops in the movie, that is, according to my limited knowledge and helpful imagination. So when I saw these images, I immediately thought of this wonderful film that I’ve never actually seen.

There are levels of understanding to things like books, movies and even music. The first level involves only the title. What does the title tell you? What does it say about the work?


parameter file inky47.ink

Is it better sometimes to stop at the title and not go any further? If the title is great and triggers music in your mind, then that’s a tough act to follow and maybe the fire that the title started will be smothered by the rest of the book, or movie… or blog posting.

You can’t judge a book by it’s cover, and a big part of the cover is the title. But sometimes the author never even gets to write the title; the publisher, or one of their sly, marketing appointees, does that. Sometimes the title and the cover are entirely the domain of the publisher’s creativity. Of course, the author of the title doesn’t get to put their name on the book, so if you like their work, you’ve got to do a lot of browsing to find more of it, but fortunately, titles are easy and quick to read. Titles may actually be the most popular genre of all.

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The secret home of garlic

One of the most exciting experiences of my life was taking apart a plastic model kit of the Apollo Command Module built by my brother a few years previously. He must have followed the instructions perfectly because as I began to move through each of the compartments of the model (sometimes with a pair of pliers), I would uncover completely assembled and fully equipped rooms complete with astronauts.

What made it so enticing was the element of surprise and discovery. It was the King Tut’s tomb of my time. Each doorway I tore off or cut through revealed another hidden sanctum, sealed off for thousands of years.


parameter file bulb47.ink

Finally I got to the interior compartment where there were numerous cables and pipes, some covered with gluey fingerprints. What was the purpose of incorporating such details into a part of a plastic model kit that was going to be enclosed and unseen? Even though I was rather young at the time, I wondered why a model kit would be made so realistically, containing such detail that was not likely to ever be appreciated by anyone except the person who assembled it or their little brother who, like a tomb robber might pull it apart (plastic model parts actually form welds when glued together).

With fractals it’s the same thing, and Inkblot Kaos produces these intriguing cave-like structures with strange, garlic like plants in them, growing in undisturbed silence. The formulas produce the rich details and it’s easy to become casual and indifferent to these “careful” details because they were made by a machine, a computer algorithm, and not an artist’s hand.

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