Has Ultra Fractal become the Walmart of fractal art?

“So radically innovative are Ultra Fractal’s capabilities that they have literally redefined fractal art since the program’s debut.”
(From Ultrafractal.com)

It’s complicated. Believe me, it took me a few years to come to such a radical and harsh conclusion. I mean, what could be bad about a program that has been used to create fractal artwork with such popular and even commercial appeal? Is it simply bitterness, resentment, sour grapes, malice or some other petty feelings that have caused me to speak against this fractal colossus? Aren’t those the usual motives we’ve come to expect when we see someone “taking a swipe” at someone else’s favorite program?

Like everyone else, I am from time to time swayed by the deceptive, emotional impulses which usually leads to ugly behaviour. I’ve taken the time to consider the possibility that I’m being influenced by the selfish, petty things that usually initiate and maintain most discussions in the fractal world. For the record, I don’t think I have any personal bias against UF or anyone who uses it… but I expect most people will interpret that differently. Where you have art, you have opinions about art.

Anyhow, I think I’ve discovered the single most important issue in fractal art today: UF has smothered fractal art.

UF has produced some very graphically pleasing and professional looking artwork. It’s understandable that because of this many feel it belongs at the head of the fractal art parade, because that sort of artwork has a much wider, though shallower, appeal. It’s your best bet for attracting people’s attention and creating a favorable impression with them for fractal art. UF definitely has come to occupy a special place in the fractal art world, a place of preeminence and popularity that has fundamentally changed the environment around it. Not unlike the effect that Walmart’s success has had on the retailing industry in North America.

Strictly speaking, it’s not the program. It’s not the people who use the program, either. It’s this incredible ability that the program has to draw in almost everyone who has an interest in fractal art and keep them there, while the larger part of the genre lies either forgotten or undiscovered in its shadows.

That’s the Walmart effect I was referring to. Except, of course, there’s nothing predatory or monopolistic about UF, unlike Walmart, which engages in union busting tactics that haven’t been seen since the 1930’s (I have family who work for Walmart). UF on the other hand, achieved its popularity through good programming and design; smart trialware marketing; the high quality results of a few of its users; and through a large and very well organized user community.

Nothing wrong with any of that. In fact, the UF community is, in my opinion, the only really coherent fractal art group today. Which is what my point in all this is: fractal art has become Ultra Fractal-ized: One Brand – One Way, domesticated and homogeneous, losing it’s natural diversity by becoming cut off from the very thing which made it attractive to artists in the first place.

Tim Hodkinson

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16 thoughts on “Has Ultra Fractal become the Walmart of fractal art?

  1. Tim,

    Wow. I think I want to post more, but it’s a holiday, and I have a cheesecake to make for a friend of mine. (Yes, I make cheesecake. Damn good sugar-free cheesecake.)

    For right now, I’ll just point out that if you think UF is Wal-mart, what does that make Apophysis? Last I checked, there are huge Apo communities and Apo was well-represented in terms of fresh artwork posted on various community-type sites. And Apo is free.


  2. Damien got ahead of me…

    Take a look at the Deviantart fractal gallery, keeping in mind that Deviantart is the biggest online art community. Apophysis has taken over. In fact, I would venture to say that the when the general public thinks fractal, they’re thinking about flames.


  3. Tim, two people got in ahead of me, but I’m going to put in a plug for Apophysis as well! Its awesome, its free and its well supported (The Frac Fan forum is pretty active, and most of the “showcase” stuff being posted these days is Apo).

  4. apo is indeed much more important than ultrafractal, mostly because of its opensource nature – this helps a lot in preventing the “walmart syndrome” you mention.

    however, your bigger point still stands: uf and apo have come to almost completely define the fractal field in the eyes of the casual observer; there is very little inventiveness going on.

    i am always gutted when someone comments on my images, remarking how amazing ultrafractal or apophysis are when i used neither :| nothing can be done about it though, and in the end one should just hope that in time the community will expand enough to outgrow the “fast food” of uf and apo, to appreciate more unique tastes.

  5. Wow, where do I start?

    First of all, let me say that I have no problem with Wal-Mart in so far as its right to exist. Personally, I choose not to shop there because I generally don’t like the quality or variety of their merchandise. But I’m not a Wal-Mart “hater”, and have no problem if other people choose to shop there. Many people shop there simply because it suits their limited budget. We can argue all day about that point, but that’s not really the issue here.

    I think the comparison of UF to Wal-Mart or “fast food” is totally off the mark. UF was the first fractal program I ever used, and so far I’ve never found the need to go elsewhere. I find the program to be very flexible, and I find I can produce high-quality images with it. To me, Wal-Mart and “fast food” invoke the opposite: Cheap quality and lack of flexibility and variety.

    If people want to use other programs they feel are more to their liking, God love ‘em. Whatever works for you works for you.

    I haven’t tried Apophysis, and am not too familiar with it, so I can’t comment on it. Maybe, one day, I’ll get around to trying it.

  6. what i meant by fast food is more like “readily available and pre-canned”. you get the same thing everytime.

    if you think that’s off the mark, you’d be amazed by what variety is available with other programs. apophysis is one avenue of exploration (a particularly vast and beautiful space of fractals), and then the ultimate step is writing your own software… it’s impossible to look at the options provided by ultrafractal and the options provided by rendering anything you like, and condsider them equal.

    the walmart ananolgy is this: it’s readily accessible for a price.

  7. Thomas,

    How is it that UF is “canned” and Apophysis not, when UF can render Apophysis flames but Apophysis cannot render anything except flames? When UF requires you to assemble your image yourself, but Apophysis provides a canned set of 100 random flames every time you start it?

    If UF is fast food because it’s “easy”, then that just makes Apophysis junk food. I don’t think either of these is an accurate view of the situtation.

    Apophysis’ open-source nature does very little to encourage people to play with the program. Apophysis is written in Delphi, which is not really a very popular language and you have to have a proprietary tool to compile it. It requires real programming ability to be able to contribute to the code, so there are only a handful of people who do.

    UF is closed-source (coincidentally also Delphi, but it doesn’t matter) but all of the formulas are open-source. And there is a huge library of formulas people have written. It makes no sense to me to look at the huge variety of what UF can and has done, compare it with the single fractal type of flames, and somehow claim flames are more diverse!

    Maintaining this irrational stance would simply underscore that it’s not lack of selection you dislike in UF, or its “pre-canned” nature, but instead something else. It marks you as a hater.


  8. The analogy between UF and Walmart is only that they have both become monopolies because of their extensive popularity and this has in turn transformed the world around them by drawing people’s attention away from alternatives.

    Canned food, fast food or anything else cheap and simple doesn’t apply to UF. UF revolves around the user’s inputs and won’t do anything automatically, which is what frustrated me with the program, but is something many of it’s users seem to prefer.

    Apophysis, on the other hand can be delightfully automatic and require no user input at all. I think Damien’s exaggerating though… it’s doesn’t auto-generate “100” flames at once, it’s only 99, if my memory serves me. In fact, the random batch function is the default setting, I think. You have to turn it off. I think the random batch is intended to be a starting point, like a lump of clay on a potter’s wheel and not the end result.

  9. a hater? heh, now this is just getting ridiculous :P

    ahh yeah, i have this deep-seated hatred of particular fractal software… ooh, definitely…

    lol! that’s what i get for not agreeing with people i guess.

  10. btw i had no idea that uf can render flames- that of course changes things a lot. however, apo is always getting modified by people like zueuk, gygrazok, joel faber etc., so i’d have to assume that uf would have to regularly release updates to keep up with that…

    this flexibility in editing the source is what i was getting at, which is why i deem my approach (working *entirely* with source) to be so flexible; in theory my flame renderer is no more flexible than apo (ignoring the many differences for now), in practice i work a lot with different rendering methods, whereas the apo rendering code pretty much still belongs to scott draves afaik.

  11. Which is what my point in all this is: fractal art has become Ultra Fractal-ized: One Brand – One Way, domesticated and homogeneous, losing it’s natural diversity by becoming cut off from the very thing which made it attractive to artists in the first place.

    Can you expand on from what UF has become cut off? Damien introduced me to UF in 1998 and I took it because of its flexibility in formulas and layering. And now, with animations, UF is even more flexible. UF can generate flames, L-system fractals, images incorporating photographs or text, and as Damien said, all of the formulas are open source. So, from what has UF become cut off?


  12. The surprising results of easy experimentation.

    You are a master of Ultra Fractal and I am a master of Sterlingware (I wrote an exhaustive tutorial). I suspect we both got that way because we like the way the programs work and wanted to do as much as we could with them.

    I like the machine aspect, the algorithmic-creator aspect, to fractal art. I suspect that you and many Ultra Fractal artists prefer the human aspect, the artist-creator aspect, to fractal art.

    We prefer different tools for the same reasons: creativity.

    I guess it probably sounds absurd for me to say that Sterlingware has something that Ultra Fractal doesn’t, but by making UF so artist-oriented (as opposed to experimentation) it’s lost the ability to do the quick mix and match experimentation that Sterlingware and many of the older programs did.

    My only mistake in all this not realizing that some fractal artists (maybe the majority?) actually see what I consider to be a weakness of UF to in fact be its strength.

    Two very different approaches to fractal art, I guess. And often, two very different styles of artwork, or outcomes too.

  13. Um…I’ve yet to just press a button and ta da. You may get 100 random flames, but it’s the work that goes into the flames, the tweaking, that becomes the art. Not to mention a good many people, myself included, press the blank flame button and create from scratch.

    I don’t think these programs can be compared to anything monopolistic. They are as they are. There is a huge amount of freeware out there, and I hadn’t even heard of Ultra Fractal when I was creating my firsts in Fractal Explorer. Apophysis, I came onto by accident.

    I love Ultra Fractal. It’s expansive in what you can do with it, has a good interface. I think of it like the “Photo Shop” of fractals. That, I think is a more appropriate analogy both in its popularity and it’s capabilities.

  14. Thomas,

    I did not realize you were unaware UF can render flames. That “renders” my “hater” comment completely meritless, and I apologize.

    UF renders flames by way of a formula, just like everything else. That formula is open for inspection. Further, since UF is the compiler, anyone can “experiment” with that formula even more easily than they can experiment with Apo’s source. The advantages Apo has over UF for flames is that its editing interface is tailored for flames and its rendering engine is, too, so it’s more efficient. Remember that Apo started out as Mark Townsend’s program to modify flame parameters for use in Ultra Fractal.

    As I said, I have no problem with people writing their own code. I’ve done plenty of that myself. I’ve also written plenty of UF formulas specifically to introduce new techniques into the program. The irony is that plenty of people accused me of “hoarding” those techniques because I didn’t release the formulas right away.


    I’ve never felt like I was cut off from experimentation with UF. I find it amusing that you consider UF being artist-oriented a bad thing. I thought we were discussing fractal art. Everybody finds their own path and toolset when it comes to art, but I have always found that some tools are very “strong” and leave less room for the artist to wriggle through. I’ve written about this before, on this blog.

    B. Sandlin,

    Yes, Apo’s random flames require work to become good art. I have never maintained otherwise. That does not stop legions of people from downloading the program, cranking out batches of random flames, and picking dozens to post as “art”. Such flames do represent the aesthetic sense of the “artist” but only insofar as they’ve performed the function of filtering the dreck; they’re not actively expressing their creativity, but passively allowing through that which they find pleasing. It is better than nothing, but not what I expect from an artist.

    This doesn’t make Apo a bad program or flame artists bad artists. I mentioned it only to point out that if UF were bad for fractal art, that possibly other programs might actually be worse (in some ways).


  15. Damien said it… all those new people don’t realize that Apophysis was a flame editor for UF ;)
    Now it’s an application for itself (and coupled with flam3 by Scott for rendering animations), it sets the standards in the matter of this particular set of fractals – flames.

    As of UF… I love UF for bringing its ideas to the world and making such beautiful creations possible. But… I don’t know if you know of ChaosPro – a free app, which is similar to UF – and it’s even compatible with it :)
    Even more… didn’t check other soft for a looong time, but most of them were lacking only one feature to render UF useless in the meaning of its price – layering.

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