How I Made It: USC professor brings computer animation to life

USC professor Hao Li works on cutting-edge computer graphics and animation not only with his students, but also with Hollywood studios on films such as "Fast and Furious 7."
(Michael Robinson Chávez / Los Angeles Times)

The gig: Animator Hao Li, 34, is an assistant professor of computer science at USC, running a small, newly renovated lab with five graduate students at the university’s school of engineering. His team is working on cutting-edge graphics and animation, including what Li described as “dynamic shape reconstruction, real-time facial and body performance capture, 3-D hair acquisition and garment digitization.” Li is also the founder and chief executive of Pinscreen Inc., a Santa Monica start-up focusing on “next-generation mobile communications in 3-D.”

Making a name: In 2013, Li was named one of the world’s 35 top innovators under age 35 by the MIT Technology Review. Formerly with the Industrial Light & Magic visual-effects house, Li’s film credits include “Star Trek Into Darkness,” “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” and “Fast and Furious 7.” In the last film, Li helped with the animation of the late Paul Walker’s character to make it appear as though Walker was present throughout the movie even though he died in a car accident before filming was completed.

Bad hair day: “One of the incredibly difficult things” Li said he was working on at USC with his graduate students is an algorithm that attempts “hair capture,” or movement, making it look as though each strand of hair — there are about 100,000 on a human head — is moving individually as well as changing appearance depending on sources of light or shadow.


Early effects: Li dubs himself a “German-born punky of Taiwanese descent doing computer graphics,” adding, “I know, #epicfail.” Born in Saarbrucken, Germany, Li points to the influence of his mother, Cheng-Tze Liu, who was a painter, calligrapher and costume maker for stage dramas, ballets and operas. His father, Chuan-Tseng Li, was a chemist and engineer for a pharmaceutical company. “It was the perfect combination for computer graphics,” Li said. “I had the aspect of art from my mother and the science from my father.”

Picking a path: Still, Li’s parents didn’t see where he was headed while he “played video games several hours a day” on a Commodore 64 computer and began learning simple computer coding and computer languages, like BASIC, in high school. “Chinese families always wish their sons will go into medicine or become a lawyer,” Li said. “I just kind of refused that and decided I wanted to go into computer science.”

Movie magic: Exposure to effects-heavy films including “Jurassic Park” and “The Terminator” set Li’s sights on a computer animation career. “I saw those special effects and said, ‘Wow, that is what I really want to do.’” Li said that two of his high school teachers were “instrumental in telling what subjects I would need to take. By 16, they had given me a better idea of what I would have to do to be in computer science.”

European education: Li got a master’s degree in computer science in 2006 from the University of Karlsruhe (now the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology) and a doctorate in computer science from ETH Zurich in 2010. Li followed that up with postdoctoral work at Princeton University and Columbia University through early 2012. “I got the formal training on the theoretics of computer science.... I started to experiment with graphics and put them on YouTube,” Li said. If it’s well done “it immediately catches attention in the industry.”

Getting noticed: Li said he wound up getting job offers from Microsoft Corp. and Industrial Light & Magic. “At the same time, I started applying for faculty positions,” Li said. “That’s how I came to USC” in June 2013. Li said he chose academia over commercial positions because of the stability of academic environments, the resources and because “you can do crazy things and ideas and not worry about commercializing it.... You can also do long-term, fundamental research, something you can’t do in an industry job.”

Advice: Stay open to possibilities, Li said, adding, “Have a rough idea of where you want to go, but don’t just stick with that because technology is changing so quickly now. There is no way to plan. You just have to adapt to the changes.”


Leadership style: Li starts off by working with his students closely, but then wants them “to develop their independence. It’s not just giving them a task to do. They need to have their own agenda, where they decide” the next project they will be working on.

Looking ahead: Li sees a future in which self-crafted avatars, enhanced to one’s own tastes, can assemble in a 3-D virtual room for a meeting or social activities. The technology will “become an integral part of every computer, mobile device and living room,” Li said, “streaming terabytes of data about us and our friends every second over the Internet.” Li added, “Our world is 3-D, and I want machines to be able to see it like we do.”

Personal: Li, who is single, has taken up cooking as a hobby and currently is working his way through Italian cuisine. Another leisure pursuit is art, which Li showcases on his website, Despite his love of computer animation, his favorite tool is a simple pencil.

Twitter: @RonWLATimes