Deep in the neo-hippy outbreak of the early 90s, I wrote a rude article about Mandelbrots, describing them as multicoloured bird shits. I stand by that description, with one concession over two decades: the nature of fractal art is to look like multicoloured bird shit, the art is in elevating it from that nature.

That’s something I’m desperately trying to do.

Why are cassettes like Marxism?

This is a part of redeeming video synthesis, which shares fractal art’s innate tendency to shitness. In the 1980’s it was hard/cool to make wiggles on a video screen. In the 1990’s it was hard/cool to render complex geometry on a computer screen. Once a new media difficulty curve is overcome the pioneers and tinkerers move on, and lacking any other virtue, the new wave quickly rots into excuses. As happened with punk music, abstract expressionism and telephone poetry.

In the 21st century many old things are coming back to life, but for some reason with little or no insight or refinement. The explanation is sometimes given as nostalgic purity – that only the ur-form is authentic. Cassettes and Marxism are both to be unsoiled by revision.

The way I see it, video synthesis addressed some limitations in music, but then introduced further limits which were solved by fractals, which then introduced limits which are still in need of solving. Instead of which we careened off into minimalist grey and little ticking noises. That we have arrived back at the aesthetics of 1980 something shows how little the 2000’s contributed to the dialogue.

But I’m not here to go into that – this post is about positive steps I’ve made and information about what is available to the next lot of tinkerers.

First, let’s be clear about synthetic visuals. Networks of simple calculations leading to apparently complex, and therefore ‘natural’ results. A Mandelbrot is a single shape with an infinitely complex edge (actually so is a circle, that’s just not as interesting). Most of the control is in shading the exterior of the shape according to rules; such as how far you are from the edge of the formula.

by Diane Cooper. Not sure I like it, but she’s got the right idea.

The initial excitement in fractals was that nature – weather, flowers, landscapes, could possibly have a simple mathematical basis. The 90’s neo-hippies strived to wed the apparent power of the home computer to nature and thus gain magical insight. Rendering a Mandelbrot was a contemplation of this potential (as was all things virtual). The colours were hot primaries because they had symbolic meaning a la chakras. As with Futurism, the art itself was beside the point, the manifestos were the thing.

My personal interest is in trying to take the facility of video synthesis, the organic confabulation of fractals and impose some kind of painterly discipline that will create synthetic audiovisual work that doesn’t rely on sleeve notes. I’ll then use these to demo my thesis a few years from now.

Mandelbrots are only one of many complex forms – the Julia set is less predictable and more interesting. And Perlin Noise is an example of very different recipe, of boxes within boxes each with a random shade. All are useful in breaking up synthetic images into the detailed dirt and fuzz of the real world.

Experiments in bird poo Abstract video.

Coming from 3D, I first tried tools for texturing 3D models, for example Genetica. These have a good palette of procedures for noise and organic patterns, as 3D has a tradition of naturalism. But Genetica is aimed at creating repeating square tiles and looping animation, so most of what I got was very cyclic and contained.

I thought about software that makes infinite 3D landscapes. In reading the history of Bryce I was reminded that it was created by Eric Wenger, who made Metasynth and a program I’d forgotten – Artmatic. Now if you wanted to plot the epicentre of neo-hippydom, Artmatic is it. Brightly coloured space vomit was the domain of Wenger, Kai Krause and MetaCreations up to the great wizard collapse of 1999. But a lead is a lead and so I came to the site where 1990 lives forever – U & I software. Holy Shit, that site.

It's 1999 and the future is HOT GREEN


Who would have thought that Artmatic would reach version 5? And further, that it would develop into a broad system for animating synthetic visuals? Though the interface still yearns to be run at 800×600 pixels and the iconography is inscrutable, Artmatic has taken on a potent range of outcomes beyond the original aims of the software and I can recommend it as one of the few really versatile algorithmic visual tools.


Take a space and shade it in grey scale from -x to +x and -y to +y. Distort that shading with snippets of formulas that link up in a chain of icons. Colour and light the grey scale with complex gradations. I don’t fully know how to run it. The man who wrote it doesn’t fully know how to run it. But I’ve started to get enough skill in guiding it where I want to go.

Cross platform poo Abstract art.

So this was all very good, but while the Mac was grinding away at some watery thing I had a bunch of PCs lounging around and not earning their keep. There’s no Artmatic for PC, what could I find?

Again I started at the end & wound back through a history. I found Chaotica on this siteĀ which seemed promising, but then read that “Chaotica supports all Apophysis / Flam3 features”. What are these? It turns out that there’s been a tribe of people making fractal flames since Scott Draves specified the algorithm in 1992. For example, Apophysis is an open source tool that if anything makes Artmatic seem straightforward.

(Trigger warning – the Mac tool mentioned in this video will crash your Mountain Lion based OSX machine for some reason).

Apophysis is designed to be hard to predict – that would be fine if 90% of the results weren’t fairy floss, so I went looking for more control. I discovered someone had ported the code to After Effects in 2002, which may as well have been under the rule of Richard the Third in computing terms. No it doesn’t run in AFX CS6. It does run in AFX 4.1. which I make no apologies for finding online – hell, it’s a wonder that 11 year old software runs in Windows 7 at all. But what you get is a whole heap of inscrutable sliders. Not good.

After much fussing with open source I settled on buying Ultra Fractal. This is the ultimate multicoloured bird shit creator of all time, and it took a lot of Gin to bury my misgivings and hit the PayPal. But then, it’s a challenge: try to make something that isn’t found on the side of a Kombi van. And then I came up with the answer!

Garfield without Garfield.

Seeing as the goodness is all in the way you colour the field in relationship to the edge of the fractal, the answer is obvious: just don’t include the fractal. Show only the effect of the fractal in disturbing the space. The bird shit is gone, leaving an abstract colour field.

The example here is nowhere near what I want yet, I just like how it looks like one of my migraines. I still need to add grit and dirt. But it’s getting closer to something I can work with. The way Ultra Fractal handles formulas is a bit raw and nasty, lots of folders full of crowd sourced snippets. I’ve just found the Perlin noise code and have some early results; it could be good. Meanwhile Ultra Fractal can import flames, so I can put away the 11 year old After Effects.

This post is already way long, so maybe another time I can talk about Studio Artist – quite a different kettle of synthetics.