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Conversations With Cliff Plumer Part I: A Magical Move


Cliff Plumer isn't a household name and tabloid photographers certainly don't recognize him. Most of THG's readers have probably never heard of him. Yet, there are few people in the computer industry whose work has been more influential and seen by more people. Also, for all the challenges he faces, Plumer has one of the coolest jobs in the world.

Cliff Plumer is the Chief Technology Officer of Lucasfilm and Industrial Light and Magic, the creative engines of George Lucas. As the CTO, he has the enviable position of being on the leading edge of movie and game production, and has tremendous resources at his disposal to make the latest creative ideas happen. The combined corporate entity is both a visual effects house and game studio. For the past ten years, he has worked his way up through various jobs in the company and now supervises a group of more than 150 engineers and developers who support the digital technologies that Lucas and others need to make their visual realities look great.

MobilityGuru's Managing Editor, Barry Gerber, spoke to Plumer in his offices in San Francisco last month and we have broken the interview into two parts. This week, we talk to him about his role with ILM and what it took to move the company's data center. Next week, we look at ILM's accomplishments in digital design and visualization and cover some of his remaining computing challenges.

The Making Of A CTO

Plumer first worked as a cameraman for NBC TV at the White House and in sports. After that he moved onto a career in software development. He was a partner in Parallax Software. ILM was one of their first customers for the movie "Death Becomes Her." He later took worked at Wavefront Software.

"I discovered computer graphics at an NAB show in 1985-6, and thought that was the coolest thing in the world," he said.

As he spent more and time working with ILM developing their tools, he eventually found his way to the company and took on his first job there, managing the post production department and supervising people who were using his software.

"Having somewhat of a technical background, I was constantly a thorn in the side of the R&D department with requests and changes for our tools," Plumer said. "So they told me, okay, big mouth, fix it yourself! And five years ago I stepped into managing the department, which led to more and more problems to solve and eventually to my current position as CTO."

Plumer has a very demanding job, as you might imagine: "My job changes by the hour. Especially in the last couple of years, things have been very challenging, moving this campus to San Francisco, overseeing technology at ILM, doing R&D projects on tools to benefit the entire studio," he said. "Not to mention doing specific tasks on productions that we might have in-house."

In addition to the above, he is helping to support a new division for Lucasfilm Animation, building a new studio in Singapore, working with AMD and other vendors on current and future needs, and "doing an awful lot of testing of new technologies and working with them," he said. "That is five or six jobs right there!"