1985. American Cancer Society – Smoking Fetus (PSA)

David Fincher made his debut as a Director with a TV Commercial or, more specifically, a Public Service Announcement (PSA) for the American Cancer Society.


CompanyAmerican Cancer Society
DirectorDavid Fincher
Production CompanyJoseph Vogt Productions
ProducerJoseph Vogt
Director of PhotographyMichael Owens
DesignerChris Green
StudioMidland Productions
Richmond, CA
Studio General Manager / Digital Motion Control Camera System DesignerDr. Steven L. Horowitz, PhD
Camera Operator / Motion Control Camera System ProgrammerByrne Pedit
Puppet DesignKirk Thatcher, Richard Snell
Puppet SculptorTony McVey
Chief PuppeteerBob Cooper
MusicRen Klyce
VoiceJan Thomas

Technical Specifications

Runtime30 s
Aspect Ratio1.33:1
Film Negative Format35 mm
Film ManufacturerEastman Kodak
Film Negative StockEastman Color High Speed, 5294
Cinematographic ProcessSpherical
CameraMitchell GC 35mm High Speed
LensNikon 20mm
LaboratoryMonaco Labs
San Francisco
Printed Film Format35 mm
Sound MixMono

Production Details

Release DateJanuary 1985

Awards / Nominations

– Six major awards including the “International Broadcasting Award” from the “Hollywood Radio & Television Society” (HRTS) and the “Northern California Emmy Award” from “The National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences”.

– Nominated for an “American Advertising Award” (ADDY) from the “American Advertising Federation” (AAF).

1985. WRC TV (NBC) – Report on the controversial PSA from the American Cancer Society

American Cancer Society’s “Smoking Fetus”

Directed by David Fincher and shot by Michael Owens, this PSA gained national attention due to its striking images and potent warning.

Bruce Mink
August 1985
American Cinematographer

Tony McVey sets up his sculpture in front of the motion-control camera.

The sound of a heartbeat is heard. A human fetus fades up on the television screen in close-up and a voiceover begins: “Would you give a cigarette to your unborn child?” The camera pans and dollies back to reveal an entire fetus existing serenely in the womb of its mother. “You do every time you smoke when you’re pregnant.” At this point, the fetus slowly brings a lit cigarette to its lips and takes a puff, exhaling the smoke into the glowing placenta it lives in. And the voiceover finishes: “Pregnant mothers, please don’t smoke.”

The 30-second spot was produced for the American Cancer Society by a talented and relatively untapped group of San Francisco Bay area filmmakers, modelmakers, and computer specialists brought together by producer Joseph Vogt (Rick Springfield’s “Bop ’Till You Drop”). With a film and conceptual design education behind him, Vogt organized the majority of his film crew from the ranks of Industrial Light and Magic. It was with the abundant talents of these production people — director David Fincher, Midland Productions, and Monaco Labs — that Vogt brought life to a most creative and technically challenging public service announcement.

Director of photography Michael Owens at the Mitchell GC ready to shoot the prepped sculpture.

Jerry Angert, director of broadcasting with the American Cancer Society, described the ad as “one of the most powerful we have done… We considered the fact that it would be controversial and the networks might not show it, but counted on the local stations to take it.” And that’s exactly what transpired. NBC and CBS chose not to air the graphic spot while CNN (Turner Broadcasting), ABC and its affiliates and affiliates of NBC and CBS elected to show it.

CBS and NBC claim the spot is too graphic. An NBC spokeswoman cited “general taste considerations” as a deterrent to airing the spot. “It was the sight of the fetus that was especially shocking and we felt it was potentially offensive to our viewers,” she was quoted as saying. A CBS spokesman said the network agreed with the “importance of the intent of the message,” but said that the spot was “far too graphic for broadcast on CBS.” An ABC spokesman, however, said the message put forth by the spot was “important for pregnant mothers to understand.” The network felt that. while it was “different visually” from the usual fare viewed on TV, it contained no material that warranted its ban from the airwaves.

Read the full article

American Cinematographer, August 1985 cover

Sculptor Tony McVey used the book “A Child is Born” (2nd edition, 1976) by photographer Lennart Nilsson as a reference.


Dark Eye. The Films of David Fincher
James Swallow
Reynolds & Hearn Ltd, 2003
Pages 17, 18:

Fincher’s incentive to jump ship [and leave Industrial Light & Magic] was a commercial created for the American Cancer Society that he and a few other discontented Industrial Light & Magic technicians had created on their own time. ‘We did it on the weekends, me, this guy Tony McVey and Kirk Thatcher.’ McVey was a sculptor who had worked on Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977), Superman (1978) and The Dark Crystal (1982), a veteran of Return of the Jedi with Fincher and Thatcher (who would go on to be a writer-director for the Muppet movies series).

‘We were just bored. Most of us worked at ILM and we were kind of bored [with it], so we went to this low-rent optical house just outside of Berkeley where they had motion-control equipment and stuff. This friend of mine, who was a truck driver who wanted to become a producer, went to the American Cancer Society and said “What if we do a commercial for you for really cheap? We’ve got all these people, we’ve got all this expertise, we can do it really inexpensively.'” The striking concept behind the ad spot was a powerful image for the anti-smoking lobby. ‘We sold them this idea that we thought was really funny,’ Fincher recalls. ‘We were all sitting around a table at a restaurant in Larkspur and came up with this idea of seeing a foetus smoking a cigarette in utero – we pitched it to them and they said “Great,” and I think they gave us about $7000 – and we just did it, my friend Ren Klyce wrote the music and we just winged it.’ Klyce would also work with Fincher years later when the director moved to the big screen.

The dark imagery of the 1984 ‘Smoking Foetus’ commercial quickly brought Fincher to the attention of producers. ‘Some people saw it and then I got a call to come to LA to talk about doing music videos.’ Fincher came to the city during the summer of the same year. ‘I moved to Los Angeles during the Olympic Games, and I thought “God, there’s hardly any traffic. LA is great!” Of course, everyone had left for the games.’

Fincher moved into an apartment in Westwood, decorated in a bland 1980s pop-architecture style he nicknamed the ‘Miami Vice hospital’ look; the flat would later serve as the model for Jack’s ‘Ikea catalogue’ home in Fight Club. The young director wanted the American Cancer Society promo to be his calling card into the world of advertising; but his new employers took a different view. ‘I came to LA and signed with a video company hoping to do commercials. I thought that because Ridley Scott had come from doing commercials, that would be a really good way to break into the movie business – but at the time, nobody would let us do any commercials because they didn’t think we were good enough.’

With the growth in music video culture and the rise in popularity of MTV, Fincher instead joined a brigade of new talent being funnelled into the nascent pop promo industry, a breeding ground for many directors who would later go on to careers as feature film directors. People like Fincher, Peter Care and Dominic Sena would graduate from music video in the same way the British commercial directors like Alan Parker, Adrian Lyne and Scott brothers Ridley and Tony had crossed over from ads to movies.

The Director’s Cut: Picturing Hollywood in the 21st Century
Stephan Littger
Continuum, 2006
Pages 170, 171.

Reprinted in David Fincher. Interviews
Laurence F. Knapp (Ed.)
University Press of Mississippi, 2014
Pages 91, 92.

I did the cancer thing in my spare time. There was my friend Kirk Thatcher who was in Monster Shop, working with Phil Tippet and Tony McVey and several others. Then there was a friend of mine that I had known since I was five and that went to State with him. And we were all sitting around going, “We should just do commercials, ’cause at least we’d be doing our own stuff and we wouldn’t be so neurotically waiting for what’s going to happen at ILM next. Let’s have some kind of say in our own destiny!” So we came up with this idea of contacting people who would be in a position to spend money on public service announcements. And so obviously we thought of the American Cancer Society. We came up with this idea for this commercial that had this 2001 Star Child with a cigarette in its mouth; we thought it was really amusing and funny. This guy that my friend Chris knew—his name was Joe, he was a truck driver delivering text books—and he wanted to be, I mean he fancied himself a producer. He called the Society in some state and said, “Hey, we have these guys, they all work at ILM, they are bored, they have this idea for this nonsmoking commercial.”

We had done some storyboarding and he pitched the idea to them. They asked how much it was going to cost. I think we did it for like seventy-five hundred bucks or five grand. And they said great and gave us a check for the money and we did this thing at cost.

There was a facility in Richmond at the time. It was a low-rent motion control place. It was an ILM wannabe. We brought them this job, because ILM didn’t want to let us use their facilities or stages. So we built the creature—I think it was built in the Monster Shop at ILM—and then we took it to Richmond, photographed it, and put the whole thing together. We used their optical printer and printed the whole thing. Then I had Ren Klyce—the guy who I worked with doing all the sound for all my movies. At the time he was in music school. He did this soundtrack so that we finished the thing and gave it to them. We thought they were going to laugh and think it was funny and amusing.

Of course, it got banned on all these networks, because they were so appalled by it. And that was sort of the beginning, as much of a sideways move it was, because we were not doing that interesting work or that profitable work. I think everybody worked for free. If you had the manhours totaled up, it would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to make this thing, but we did it for seven grand. It kind of opened up the notion of being something like a director.

New York Film Festival – ‘The Social Network’ Director’s Dialogue (with Todd McCarthy) (part 3 of 6)
SocialNetworkMovie (YouTube)
September 26, 2010

Minute 6:52:

I came to L.A., hopefully to make movies, but to make television commercials, and I’ve been working in ILM and I’ve done this American Cancer Society commercial on the weekends at this… and it had… you know, did it for like 8.000$ and… been banned on three networks so, all of a sudden, I was like interesting to people and I did a music video, I came to L.A. to make music videos, and I did that for a while, but the whole idea… music videos for me was like, you know, film school, like somebody’s who is going to pay for… pay to play, they were gonna pay me to play.

David Fincher. A Life in Pictures
BAFTA Guru (YouTube)
September 19, 2014

Minute 3:29:

I worked on the weekends and I did it with some friends of mine… we sold an idea to the American Cancer Society, that had a fetus smoking a cigarette in utero, which we thought was hilarious. So we gave it to them, they were offended, it was not played on two networks, and it caused this whole thing, and then all the networks had to take it. I got a job right after that directing a music video and then I kind of lit out for LA.

David Fincher: The Complex Mind of ‘Social Network’s’ Anti-Social Director
Stephen Galloway
February 2, 2011
The Hollywood Reporter

His first was one of his most memorable. “A friend who was a truck driver and wanted to be a producer said, ‘Give me an idea for the American Cancer Society.’ So we sat down with some storyboard artists and said, ‘Let’s do this thing that’s the Star Child from 2001.'”

Fincher’s ad, showing a fetus smoking, only made him $7,000 but led to work on commercials and music videos, first for Rick Springfield, then, after Fincher moved to Los Angeles, for other artists.

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