USC professor brings computer animation to life – 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.”

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