The Colors of Infinity, aka Fractals: The Colors of Infinity (1995)

After discussing the public television broadcasts of the early “ancient future” computer precursor Hide and Seek (1983), which included a discussion of PBS-TV’s first feature film, A Lathe of Heaven (1980), we had to revisit this hour-long PBS documentary narrated by Arthur C. Clarke. And yes, The Colors of Infinity is, in fact, part of our “ancient future” theme week of reviews in tribute to the burgeoning technology of computers and the Internet committed to film in the ’80 and early ’90s — only we have to go through the Monsters of Rock festival and Pink Floyd to get there. Be patient.

Fans of the progressive rock scene of the 1960s know documentarian Nigel Lesmoir-Gordon for his longtime association with Pink Floyd. Or, if you’re a fan of ’70s British rock and the New Wave of British Heavy Metal of the ’80s, you know Gordon for his committing the very first “Monsters of Rock” at Castle Donnington festival to film in 1980 (You Tube/clip).

I bought this album from the back pages of Circus magazine for $3.99, plus a $1.50 shipping (what happened to my April Wine and Saxon hats)?

In 1966, while a student at the London Film School, Gordon preserved the first images of Pink Floyd on film (8 mm) with the eleven-minute, experimental silent short Syd Barrett’s First Trip, in which Gordon captured his high-on-magic-mushrooms classmate, Syd Barrett, frolicking in the Gog Magog Hills near Cambridge. Then, in 1967, Gordon chronicled Pink Floyd at Abbey Road Studios signing their first recording contract with EMI Records. (Both events have since been combined on one DVD. You can watch Syd Barrett’s First Trip on You Tube.)

Then, in a partnership with noted album design company Hipgnosis, Gordon formed his first production company, Green Back Films. In addition to creating promotional “pop clips” for Joe Cocker, Donovan, and Pink Floyd that aired on variety television shows, Green Back produced hit MTV videos for Big Country and Squeeze (“In a Big Country,” “Tempted”). They also produced Incident at Channel Q (1986), a long-form video/feature film that incorporated several of their rock video productions. Another one of their popular video rentals was the feature-length documentary Rainbow: Live Between the Eyes, which captured Ritchie Blackmore and company touring their sixth album, Straight Between the Eyes (1982) (since released on DVD and uploaded to You Tube).

1991-era tech. How quaint. Yet, it opened an undiscovered world.

Finally, we’re here. And it wasn’t even as deep as a Mandelbrot set.

Many of us were first fascinated by this documentary in 1995, aired as a post-script to PBS-TV’s commercial-free broadcast of the original, 1968 theatrical release — complete with intermission title card — of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The films were paired as result of their common denominator: Arthur C. Clarke, who serves here as narrator. The soundtrack is, of course, courtesy of David Gilmore of Pink Floyd. And Floyd fans take note: band aficionados claim the music from Fractals also appeared, in part, on the band’s The Division Bell (1994) and The Endless River (2014).

So, what’s a Fractal?

Image of VHS available on multiple mathematics, documentary, and online seller sites.

Fractals are an everyday part of our lives. The discovery of Fractals, aka Fractal Geometry, made Data Image Compression Software possible. You know all of those JPEGs you upload to your WordPress pages? All of those selfies you snap and share on Twitter? The ability to store all of that information on a tiny thumb drive? That’s all because of Fractals.

The Colors of Infinity is the story of Belgian mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot discovering what is now know as the M-Set (or Mandelbrot Sets) in the early seventies and coining the term “fractal” to describe the geometry behind it. It wasn’t until 1991, with the advent of personal computers, that man was able to gaze at the wondrous, psychedelic images — “God’s fingerprint” — created by basic fractal equations. Then, British mathematician and computer graphics researcher, Professor Micheal Barnsley, based on Mandelbrot’s discovery, developed the fractal image compression technology that we don’t go through a day in our ubiquitous, digital lives without using.

Think about it: The Linux operating system was first released in 1991. Tim Berners-Lee first turned on the web at CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) in 1991. We were just beyond our old Apple IIs and Atari 800s (packing 8-bits and playing Joust!), our Commodore 64s and DEC Rainbows 100 (Yikes, Rainbow, dudes: two huge operating manuals?), our TRS-80s (packing that Zilog Z-80 microprocessor!) and our first IBM PC clones running software from some guy name Bill Gates.

Then we had our “ancient future” digital life distilled to this:

z⇌z²+c

However, don’t let the fact that this film discusses the theories of Euclidean space deter you from watching, as Nigel Lesmoir-Gordon has a reputation as a documentarian for presenting the complex for easy consumption by mass audiences. Again, if you have a curiosity to know how your smart phone records and stores all of those still images and video into what is the size of a credit card, then this is a great watch.

After its U.S. public television broadcast on PBS-TV, Fractals was issued on VHS and, a few years later, subsequently released on DVD. However, caveat ye denizens of the Amazon and eBay marketplaces, as the DVDs for sale are straight VHS rips with a quality that’s no better than the washed-out uploads found video staring sites, which vary from either TV-to-VHS or direct-from-VHS rips.

In 2004, Nigel Lesmoir-Gordon himself reissued the DVD, included as a supplement to his authored paperback version of the film: The Colours of Infinity: The Beauty and Power of Fractals (copies are easily available on Amazon). You can learn more about Fractals and Mandelbrot sets on Wikipedia. You can also watch three of the many “Fractal Zoom” videos on You Tube HERE, HERE, and HERE; however, the music selections on each are questionable, poor choices. We suggest you play those videos with the sound off and use the audio from one of the many “ambient space music” uploads on You Tube to best enjoy the wonders and mysteries of Fractals.

Trip out as you watch Fractals: The Colors of Infinity in its entirety on You Tube.

About the Author: You can learn more about the writings of R.D Francis on Facebook. He also writes for B&S About Movies and publish music reviews and short stories on Medium.

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