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Conversations with Cliff Plumer Part II: ILM's Real Yoda?

Introduction

Last week we presented the first part of Barry Gerber's interview with Cliff Plumer, the Chief Technology Officer of Lucasfilm and ILM. We spoke to him about moving his data center to the Presidio in San Francisco and some of the innovative ways he uses idle processing power during off hours. Our conversation this week continues over a wide range of topics, including challenges the company faces in constructing its computing environment.

Cliff Plumer shows off some of ILM's new Presidio campus.

"A lot of what we do here is magic, we are just simulating reality. We aren't creating reality. We have to get people to focus on the bigger picture. We have to pull off a representation of reality that looks good," Plumer said. "That is hard when you have got kids coming out of MIT and Stanford without much background or context for what we are doing. So much of what we do is optimizing and fine tuning systems."

As an example of what he means by simulating reality, Plumer spoke about their work on the movie The Perfect Storm:

"We worked with a physics professor from the University of Wisconsin to figure out what it would take to create a 100-foot wave and understand the water dynamics so we could show them on screen. We were able to do it and thought we had a great result, and sat down with him and immediately he went into directing the performance of the wave rather than dealing with the science.

"It turns out we weren't quite accurate in what we were showing from a physics perspective. So we told him 'Of course we can do that,' having no idea how we were going to do it and we did. We constantly walk a fine line of 'that's good enough' and build the controls so that the creative person can get the look that they want and the performance that they want."

The company is increasingly turning toward more exacting simulations. Plumer noted ILM's need for people who know fluid dynamics, skin simulations and detailed animations on a variety of surfaces and materials. And of course, more demands for more perfect simulations drive the demand for more intense computing: "What we have done is migrate to 64 bit CPUs with AMD, to get more usable RAM, more processing power. We built a simulation server a few months ago for imaging fire shots that had four CPUs with 32 GB of RAM, just for crunching simulations. We have such heavy tasks to throw at it. My call is to decide whether this is a short-term solution for one task or something we will need for the long term."