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've been exploring fractals for many years, but only within the past five or so years have I been pursuing them as an art form. In that time I've been thinking about how to create the "ultimate" fractal program. So when in late 1997 Frederik Slijkerman told me he was thinking about a new version of his Ultra Fractal program, that it would run in Windows, and that it would have many of the features I was looking for, I got very excited. We talked a lot about what the program would be like, and it turned out far, far better than anything I had envisioned.
    Ultra Fractal 2 is unlike almost every other fractal program available. It gives you new ways to think about and explore fractals. It is enormously flexible, yet still fairly easy to use. (It may seem hard because of the sheer number of features, but that's what tutorials are for.) Although it is radically different from everything else, there are four main differences which I'll discuss below. These differences affect almost every aspect of the program and change how it deals with fractals.
True Color

At its heart, UF deals only with true color images. Every image it produces is a true color, 24-bit image. Although you can run UF from a 256-color display mode, it doesn't look very good. Almost all graphics cards for Windows can do at least 16-bit color, though, which is more than adequate.
    As a true color program, UF does not have the same sense of palettes as 256-color programs. Rather than a collection of individual colors that are used for images, UF uses the concept of gradients. Think of gradients as a strip of color; you choose the colors at a few key points along the strip, and UF smoothly blends the colors between those key points to make a nice range. You can change the gradient by manipulating the key points, and the blend is automatically re-calculated.
    Without a discrete color palette, smooth coloring techniques become much more desirable. These are techniques which will take advantage of the gradients to eliminate the banding that is common in other software. Bands thus become an element an artist must want in their image, rather than simply being a limiting factor of the software.
    This feature may not seem all that earth-shattering, but it is an absolutely necessary foundation for everything else that is built on top of it.

The power of layers in building fractals is a hard one to convey to someone who has never used the technique to build images. If you have used a program like Photoshop, you will already be familiar with layers; UF treats layers the same way.
    The real power of layers, though, is in how it lets you combine coloring techniques. Imagine for a moment that your fractal program has a choice of only ten different ways it can color a fractal formula. But you can combine any two of those ways together with a 50/50 mix. If you count each combination as a new way to color (which is effectively what it is) then you suddenly get a lot more—45, in fact.
    Ultra Fractal has a lot more than just ten ways to color fractals, it has dozens. And it can do a lot more than simple 50/50 mixes. By putting the capability to layer fractal images right into the fractal program, the artist can bring out rich, subtle detail; they can build complex colorings that no single-layer program can create.
    Of course, layering does not have to be used; there are quite a few images in my galleries that have only one layer. But it is such an incredible tool, I can't imagine using a piece of fractal software without it.
Formula Parser

Many fractal programs sport a formula parser, but Ultra Fractal approaches this with a totally different attitude. Formula parsers have a reputation for being slow, a sacrifice for the privilege of being able to edit your own formulas. This may change with the advent of UF.
    The formula parser in UF was designed from the ground up to be excruciatingly fast. First it takes each fractal formula and pulls it apart, optimizing away unneeded expressions and taking advantage of any special shortcuts your choice of parameters allows. Then, it converts the formula to optimized assembly language, and runs that.
    UF's parser (or more accurately, its compiler) is so fast that there are only two built-in fractal types that do not use it. Everything else—every other fractal type, coloring algorithm, and transformation formula—is a formula that is compiled on the fly. This means that all of the fractal formulas you want to use are available in source code form, so you can look at them and see how they work. It means you can write formulas and have them run just as fast as everything else. And it means lots of other people can write formulas and exchange them easily (and, in fact, many have).
    The formula compiler is even more important than it might seem, because while other fractal programs primarily focus on the fractal generation formula, that is not the only thing UF's compiler lets you write formulas for. As mentioned above, there are also coloring formulas and transformation formulas. Having so much of the fractal generating process available in a scriptable, user-editable form allows unprecented control and flexibility. Having these as separate items allows, for example, a coloring formula to be written once, and immediately used with every fractal formula already in existence. Just as adding a layering capability expands the number of combinations vastly, so does separating fractal, coloring, and transformation formulas.

A program as powerful as Ultra Fractal could easily have an overwhelmingly confusing and intimidating interface. But Frederik has spent as much time refining the interface for UF as he has spent working on its fractal-producing features. Interface elements have been grouped into logical sets. Many convenience features are present, tucked away until you need them. The program works like you expect a Windows program to work. It even has extensive online help.
    First-time UF users often feel a little lost, and that's understandable because the program does a lot. But there are some good tutorials out there, and once you learn your way around you will really start to appreciate what the program offers. And fractal exploring will never be the same.

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Copyright © 1996-2004 Damien M. Jones