Okay, even though the title says “Fractal Generators,” what we’re really talking about here is a whole class of oddball abstract image creators that don’t really have their own category. They manipulate arcane mathematical entities with names like the Peano curve, the Hilbert curve, the Sierpinski gasket, the Menger sponge, and the Koch snowflake. What they all have in common is an interface of some sort that comes between you and the math, allowing you to use complex algorithms to produce exquisite digital images. Examples of this in the 3D software realm include the fractal terrain generators in Mojoworld, Vue Infinite, and Terragen. You push a few buttons, and the software alters the numerical inputs. These programs vary in how successful they are at allowing you creative control over these Mandelbrotian beasties. This is by no means a complete list. If you know of other, similar programs that you find useful, please add a comment to the bottom.
Apophysis is the program used (along with Photoshop) to create the top image, “Try,” by Philsh on deviantArt. It’s Windows-only freeware, though there is a free Macintosh version, known as Oxidizer, available here. Apophysis generates “fractal flames,” which you control via a simple interface. It’s a pretty hit-or-miss affair, as you click repeatedly on the Mutate button waiting for an interest form to appear. Once you find a “flame” you like, you can choose a color gradient from a drop-down, and then hit the render button. Rendering takes several minutes, and outputs a JPG file. You can then use this as part of a Photoshop composition, if you like, as Philsh has done. Free.
UltraFractal is a commercial Windows-only application, and it’s quite a bit more sophisticated than Apophysis. It features Photoshop-like layers, the ability to use your own image files as input, a thumbnail browser, access to an online formula database, animation capabilities, a nice gradient editor, and more. UltraFractal employs formula rating, which helps you identify forumulas that create interesting and beautiful images. $79USD
Sterling2 is a Windows-only freeware app, based on the work of Stephen C. Ferguson, creator of Sterling. Sterling2 is free, whereas Sterling is $25. I haven’t investigated this program, but it looks like you’ll have to get your hands dirty, so to speak, playing with formulas directly. Not for the faint of heart, I suspect. Free.
Chaoscope describes itself as “a 3D strange attractors rendering software,” as if that should tell you all you need to know. Apparently it’s got to do with Chaos theory and fractals, but I’m an artist, dammit, not a mathematician. Chaoscope is freeware for Windows, and it seems to be in active development. Give it a shot! Free.
Artmatic comes to us from Eric Wenger, original creator of the well-known 3D landscaper generator called Bryce. Artmatic’s interface will look familiar to you, if you’ve ever used Bryce or the other products put out in the late 1990′s by now-defunct MetaCreations. It uses a node-based editor, allowing you to have super-fine control over parameters, as well as a random dice-shaped icon, which you can click on until something interesting appears. Artmatic is Macintosh-only. $249USD
Xenodream is a commercial Windows-only application, and seems to have a lot of potential. It creates not just flat 2D images, but can also export 3D OBJ files, which can then be imported to most popular 3D packages. This is not a program you will pick up in an hour, due to it’s depth. $119USD
Groboto comes in both Windows and Mac flavors, and it’s a very classy-looking application. Like Xenodream, it can create some incredibly intricate 3D models, which can be exported. It comes with a bunch of pre-made forms, called Bots, which are like templates. The texturing and lighting in Groboto is fast and very realistic. Unlike the usual sort of 3D program, Groboto does not appear to be generating thousands and thousands of polygons, but rather it is using instances of a few basic primitives, plugged into various fractal “branches”. This means that you can manipulate thousands of objects at once without choking your computer. It also means that the display is gorgeous, looking nearly like a real-time render. But be aware that exported objects can rapidly become monstrous files, 100mb or more, so watch the export settings. The limitation I see with Groboto is that it has a very limited repertoire. It’s very good at creating plant-like branching forms, but little else. Backgrounds are limited to a simple two-color gradient, with optional stars. The primitives are all pretty much the same, though you can import your own. $79USD, usually on sale for $59USD