Cliff Plumer says he's "one of those old 'Star Wars' geeks," but you wouldn't know it by looking at him. A sturdily built, gruff New Yorker, Plumer played lacrosse in college, then got started in the film and television industry as a cameraman and producer for NBC news and sports. But talk to him about his career in the digital effects industry he is now chief executive of special effects studio Digital Domain Inc. and his inner geek emerges. As a teenager, he shot his own action films, blowing up models of battleships with firecrackers and rubbing alcohol. As a special effects guru he did work on the special edition "Star Wars" series in the 1990s, working with his idol, George Lucas, and was involved in creating effects for the "Pirates of the Caribbean" films and "The Perfect Storm." Recently, Digital Domain took home an Oscar for its work on "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." Also, Plumer's not above sitting down for a few minutes to play the Xbox in his office or the Wii at his home. He met with the Business Journal at the company's Venice headquarters to discuss the perspective that his career has given him.

Question: When did you decide you wanted to go into the digital effects industry?

Answer: When I saw "Stars Wars" for the first time in 1977 I was probably 12 or 13, and I saw it at the Ziegfeld Theatre in Manhattan. I thought it was very cool and something I wanted to do. It was a great movie, obviously, but I was one of those people who wondered: "How the hell did they do that?" That got me started looking into filmmaking and special effects.

Q: What was it like growing up in Brooklyn?

A: I like to say that I'm probably more street wise than academic wise. Even though I've lived in California for probably 15 years now, at my heart I'm still a New Yorker, and that's very much a part of how I do business.

Q: How so?

A: I'm someone who's very direct, and it can be a double-edged sword. Some people come to accept my direct approach. But I also speak my mind and let people know where I stand.

Q: What were your hobbies as a kid?

A: Sports. I played a bit of everything, from football to basketball you have to play basketball living in Brooklyn later I discovered lacrosse in high school and played it in college. It was probably my favorite sport. It's got speed and is very physically demanding.

Q: How did you first get started making special effects?

A: As a little kid I liked to buy model kits and put them together. And then I started making my own little movies. And after seeing 'Star Wars' and some other films, I started blowing them up with firecrackers, rubbing alcohol, gasoline, crazy things. At the time I didn't have access to any pyrotechnics. I used to build lots of military ships and tanks and those types of things before getting into things like "Star Wars" models. I never blew up anything other than a model, though.

Q: What did your parents think about you blowing up your models?

A: As long as I didn't blow up anything other than a model or myself, they were fine.

Q: What did your parents do?

A: My father worked in the courts in New York, and my mom owned restaurants.

Q: Did you have any desire to go into those fields?

A: No. Zero. Ever since I saw "Star Wars" I wanted to go into film and television.

Q: Why did you decide to go to Ithaca College?

A: I had some friends who went there, and it also had a very good film and TV program. College was fun, but by my senior year I wasn't spending a lot of time there. My junior year I had done an internship at NBC in New York, and the next year I spent lots of weekends traveling to cover news and sports events for the network. So I was working already even though I was still in school. I started off on the production side, then got into the technical side as a cameraman and editor, and eventually started doing on-air graphics, which led me to where I am today. I covered everything from Wimbledon and NFL games to the White House.

Q: What was working at the White House like?

A: It was a little surreal. It's the White House, but it was also just a job for me, and it's not until I was in the presence of the president or other world leaders that I really realized where I was and what I was covering. On one of my first assignments there I was covering a news conference given by President Reagan, and as he was coming out I went to mike him. I got within maybe three feet of him before the Secret Service reminded me that was something they do.

Q: How long did you work at NBC?

A: Until about 1987. Then I did postproduction work in New York as a freelancer and started to do commercials and got more involved in the technology side. Eventually around 1990 I joined Parallax Software, a group in London, and we started working with George Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic. We helped them do the effects for "Death Becomes Her," "Jurassic Park" and "Forrest Gump." We sold that business in1995, and that's when ILM said, "Come on over and work with us."

Q: What films have you personally done work on?

A: The first ones I worked on at ILM were "Twister," "Jurassic Park: The Lost World," "Men in Black," and then around 1997 I started working on the "Star Wars" special edition films, the original trilogy that was re-released into theaters.

Q: You're clearly a "Star Wars" fan what's your favorite film?

A: The first one, "A New Hope." As much as "Empire Strikes Back" is a great film, it's nothing compared to the experience of seeing the first movie for the first time. You can't replicate that.

Q: What did you do at ILM?

A: I started out as head of postproduction, then head of computer graphics, then head of research and development. Then I became chief technology officer of ILM and eventually CTO of all of Lucasfilm. I helped oversee work on films like "The Perfect Storm" and the design and construction of the Letterman Digital Arts Center in the Presidio area of San Francisco.

Q: Why did you leave ILM for Digital Domain?

A: We had done a bunch of films with Michael Bay at ILM, "Pearl Harbor" and "The Island," and we were just starting to work with him on the first "Transformers" movie around 2006 when he was part of the group that acquired Digital Domain. And he started talking to me about coming down here. We had just finished the second "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie, which I thought was a huge achievement. I had spent so many years at ILM building things, and I wanted to build something again.

Q: What were the challenges of "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"?

A: It was interesting. You look at "Benjamin Button" and you don't think of it as an effects-oriented film, but it was a huge special effects challenge. A lot of what we accomplished can be attributed to director David Fincher who really pushed us to places that clearly made us uncomfortable. But at the end of the day, thanks to him pushing it, we got it done.

Q: How did it make you guys uncomfortable?

A: When he told us, "I want a photorealistic CG old version of Brad Pitt in a bathtub with water," we were sitting there and thinking, "Wow, how the hell are we going to do that?" But really we were saying, "Yeah, OK, we'll do it." I've been in that situation a lot, whether it's David Fincher or Michael Bay or George Lucas or Steven Spielberg, where I have no idea how to deliver what they want, but I knew we'd have to figure it out.

Q: Have you ever told someone, "I'm sorry, but that can't be done?"

A: No. You can't do that. (Laughs.) You don't say no to people like that. And I appreciate when they push the envelope because it pushes you to do things you wouldn't normally do.

Q: What do you love so much about the digital effects industry?

A: Every movie is different, everything is a new challenge. This job is not repetitive because no one wants to see the same thing again. It's always about how do you raise the bar.

Q: Can you watch movies and enjoy them? Or do you always find yourself analyzing the special effects?

A: I can watch a movie and enjoy it. But in the back of my head I'm making notes to go back and watch it again and try to figure out how they did something.

Q: Do you miss doing the hands-on work now that you're an executive?

A: I miss it. Someday I'd like to go back. There are movies I want to make myself, maybe as independent projects. When? Who knows?

Q: What's one thing you dislike about the digital effects industry?

A: When there's really passion missing from a project. I'm very passionate about what we do, and when any film project turns into just another job, well, I try not to let myself be in that position. Unfortunately I think there are some films that are getting made that are motivated just by economics instead of wanting to make something that has some heart to it.

Q: Can you give me an example?

A: No. I can't. Not with the tape recorder on.

Q: What advice would you give to someone who wanted to get into the effects industry?

A: You have to have passion for this. If you want just another job, go do something else. I mean that. And newcomers need to appreciate the traditional skill set. I always tell kids to take up photography, to know what it feels like to hold a camera and look through a lens, because so much of what we do still comes back to the basics of understanding a camera lens and how to set up a shot. That's something a lot of schools and a lot of students underestimate.

Q: What would you tell someone who wanted to run a special effects studio?

A: Don't do it. (Laughs.) It's hard. You have to be very strong-willed and have no fear. You need to be able to say to a director, "Yes, we can do that," knowing in the back of your head that you have no idea how to do it.

Q: What's been one of your proudest moments?

A: When I was working on "Artificial Intelligence" with Steven Spielberg on this sequence called Rouge City. It was an enormous set at Warner Bros., all green-screen, with hundreds of extras and a huge crew. And we built a system where Spielberg could look at a screen and see all the actors in real time in this computer-generated world. When he saw it, he stopped everything he was just so taken aback by it, and he said, "This is the future of filmmaking." That doesn't happen often. And I thought, "This is what it's all about."

Q: I noticed you have an Xbox in here. Are you a video game fan?

A: Yeah, I am. Sometimes I play it for fun, other times it's to check out what they're doing in games. We'd like to get into producing games at some point; we have a few in the conceptual stages. I probably play the Wii more than anything because that's something my wife and I can do together.

Q: Are you good at it?

A: I'll just say my wife beats me all the time.


TITLE: Chief Executive

COMPANY: Digital Domain Inc.

BORN: 1962; Brooklyn, N.Y.

EDUCATION: B.A. in film and television studies, Ithaca College, New York

CAREER TURNING POINT: Learning early 3-D animation tools while in broadcasting

MOST INFLUENTIAL PEOPLE: George Lucas; Steve Jobs; and computer animation pioneer Ed Catmull

PERSONAL: Lives in Santa Monica during the workweek and keeps his residence in Marin County with wife and daughter; son is away at college

HOBBIES: Tennis, skiing, mountain biking, scuba diving

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