by Caleb Goellner

50 Trillion To One The Magic Behind Mischief

The truth is, Sarah Frisken wasn’t actually trying to make Mischief.  The road to inventing her revolutionary new sketching app, which had early adopters so ecstatic they reached for words like “mind bending” and “magical” to describe it, started in the decidedly un-magical halls of medical research.

“We were building a model of the human knee and we needed a representation for 3D shapes,” said Frisken. A former professor at Tufts University, she earned her PhD in computer and electrical engineering from Carnegie Mellon University with a light-hearted thesis titled Modeling the 3D Imaging Properties of the Fluorescence Light Microscope.

“We were making a surgical simulation for arthroscopic surgery and you needed to be able to see the surface of the knee and to cut into it and to use tools to poke into it,” Frisken said, explaining the genesis of Mischief’s unique underlying code. “It’s strange that this 3D shape representation ended up being a drawing app.” 

The Magic of Math

Strange and, yes, magical, considering how far – light years, really – the artists now using Mischief have moved beyond those original, rigorously accurate medical drawings. It’s all thanks to something called adaptively sampled distance fields (ADFs), a technology which was co-invented by Frisken and her colleague, Ron Perry, while she worked at the Mitsubishi Electric Research Labs. Using ADFs, Mischief blends the textural richness of pixels with the light and nimble digital footprint of vectors.

"It's a mathematical representation of a shape -- the center line of a stroke with some extras that make for a rich texture,” Frisken explained. “You get something that’s smaller than vectors that has the feeling of pixel-based drawing.”

The unique shape representation made possible by ADFs manages to be neither pixels nor vectors. It takes the best of both worlds to yield a drawing program that’s fast, high quality, and infinitely scalable with no loss of resolution.

“You can take any part of this infinite canvas and expand it to any size and any resolution – you can take your doodle and expand it to the size of a billboard,” Frisken said. “There’s a 50 trillion-to-one zoom factor, which is like sitting on the moon and looking at a single flower on Earth and then drawing on a petal of that flower.” 

Enter The Foundry

And that’s just what Mischief the start-up can do. Now comes the acquisition of Mischief by The Foundry, the UK-based developer of computer graphics, high-end VFX, and 3D design software. With its globally recognized name and strong development and marketing teams, The Foundry is well-positioned to offer Mischief strong support.

“Just over a year ago it became clear that Mischief was going to grow to be bigger than the 1.5 people in our company could handle so we started looking for a way to reach a bigger market,” Frisken said. “When we met the people from The Foundry, we knew we had come to the right place.”

Add in the current and future optimization of Mischief for use with Wacom’s range of touch-sensitive tablets such as the Cintiq interactive pen display and Intuos pen tablet, and the little (literally – Mischief takes up just 7 MB on your hard drive) program that could is about to get some big league support.

In the Beginning

So how did a scientist like Frisken find herself as a celebrated innovator in the world of drawing and design? 

“I’ve always loved drawing, ever since I started taking classes in the 3rd grade,” Frisken said. “I kept taking art all through high school and in engineering school, where I had to persuade my advisors that drawing should count as one of the humanities requirements.” 

While teaching at Tufts, a former boss reached out to Frisken to see whether she might be interested in a consulting project with Disney Research. It turned out that the animators at Disney, which was starting to move from hand drawing to digital drawing, were struggling with the existing software. Instead of the ease and immediacy of hand drawing, the animators found the digital software to be slow and balky.

Frisken was brought in to see whether the ADF technology she had co-invented at Mitsubishi could help deliver a faster, more natural and nimble drawing program for the Disney teams. In 2012, Frisken delivered an early version of the program that was to become Mischief.


In 2008 Frisken founded 61 Solutions with Mischief as its first commercial product. In June of 2013, the company offered a version of Mischief for download on its web site. Adobe blogger John Nack mentioned the program in a post, along with a short video 61 Solutions had produces as a marketing aid. Suddenly, downloads of Mischief began to spike. 

 “I remember I was visiting my sister – it was a weekend in the fall – and I’m not sure what happened but all of a sudden I was getting between 20 and 30 user questions a day, each of which was taking me 30 minutes to answer,” Frisken said. “I remember I opened my email and burst into tears -- I just didn't know how I was going to manage it all.”

It turned out that Mischief’s revolutionary tech combined with its transparent interface appealed to both experienced digital artists and casual hobbyists. As downloads increased, comments sections of blogs and web sites, notorious as troll-dominated badlands, heaped praise on the program and offered nuanced criticism. A Tumblr devoted to work made with Mischief has yielded art of astonishing range and scope.

“It has been amazing and really a lot of fun,” Frisken said. “Some of the most rewarding parts of this has been getting emails from artists who are excited about the program and about all of the things that they can do with it.”

Get into Mischief

A free scaled-down version of the app, meant for students and amateurs, is available at the Made With Mischief web site. The full app, which includes a complete color panel with customizable color swatches, a set of preset brushes, layers and a selection of background papers and colors, is for sale for $25 at on the Mac App Store & the Mischief online store. Both versions feature the intuitive interface Frisken sees as one of the cores of the program.

“From the very start that was very much one of our passions – Mischief should be easy to use,” Frisken said. “You don’t need a hundred menus; you don’t need a manual. You just open it and you start to draw.”