Fractint's "Fractal Engine"

Several of the authors would never ADMIT this, but Fractint has evolved a powerful and flexible architecture that makes adding new fractals very easy. (They would never admit this because they pride themselves on being the sort that mindlessly but happily hacks away at code and "sees if it works and doesn't hang the machine".)

Many fractal calculations work by taking a rectangle in the complex plane, and, point by point, calculating a color corresponding to that point. Furthermore, the color calculation is often done by iterating a function over and over until some bailout condition is met. (See The Mandelbrot Set for a description of the iteration process.)

In implementing such a scheme, there are three fractal-specific calculations that take place within a framework that is pretty much the same for them all. Rather than copy the same code over and over, we created a standard fractal engine that calls three functions that may be bolted in temporarily to the engine. The "bolting in" process uses the C language mechanism of variable function pointers.

These three functions are:

  1. a setup function that is run once per image, to do any required initialization of variables,

  2. a once-per-pixel function that does whatever initialization has to be done to calculate a color for one pixel, and

  3. a once-per-orbit-iteration function, which is the fundamental fractal algorithm that is repeatedly iterated in the fractal calculation.

The common framework that calls these functions can contain all sorts of speedups, tricks, and options that the fractal implementor need not worry about. All that is necessary is to write the three functions in the correct way, and BINGO! - all options automatically apply. What makes it even easier is that usually one can re-use functions 1) and 2) written for other fractals, and therefore only need to write function 3).

Then it occurred to us that there might be more than one sort of fractal engine, so we even allowed THAT to be bolted in. And we created a data structure for each fractal that includes pointers to these four functions, various prompts, a default region of the complex plane, and various miscellaneous bits of information that allow toggling between Julia and Mandelbrot or toggling between the various kinds of math used in implementation.

That sounds pretty flexible, but there is one drawback - you have to be a C programmer and have a C compiler to make use of it! So we took it a step further, and designed a built-in high level compiler, so that you can enter the formulas for the various functions in a formula file in a straightforward algebra-like language, and Fractint will compile them and bolt them in for you!

There is a terrible down side to this flexibility. Fractint users everywhere are going berserk. Fractal-inventing creativity is running rampant. Proposals for new fractal types are clogging the mail and the telephones.

All we can say is that non-productivity software has never been so potent, and we're sorry, it's our fault!

Fractint was compiled using Microsoft C 7.0 and Microsoft Assembler 6.0, using the "Medium" model. Note that the assembler code uses the "C" model option added to version 5.1, and must be assembled with the /MX or /ML switch to link with the "C" code. Because it has become too large to distribute comfortably as a single compressed file, and because many downloaders have no intention of ever modifying it, Fractint is now distributed as two files: one containing FRACTINT.EXE, auxiliary files and this document, and another containing complete source code (including a .MAK file and MAKEFRAC.BAT). See Distribution of Fractint.

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This page maintained by

Noel Giffin,