Magazine article American Cinematographer

American Cancer Society's 'Smoking Fetus'

Magazine article American Cinematographer

American Cancer Society's 'Smoking Fetus'

Article excerpt

The sound of a heartbeat is heard. A human fetus fades up on the television screen in close-up and a voice-over 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 voice-over finishes: "Pregnant mothers, please don't smoke."

The 30 second spot just described 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.

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 smoking fetus spot while CNN (Turner Broadcasting), ABC and its affiliates and affiliates of NBC and CBS elected to show the fetus spot.

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.

The two foot long fetus is starkly realistic to the camera's eye. Sculptor Tony McVey is the main force behind the creation of the image that caused discomfort at two major networks. With four years of work designing and sculpting parts of human figures at the Natural History Museum in London, McVey's background made possible a realistic fetus form from plasticene, an oil clay.

Joe Vogt provided McVey with the book, "A Child is Born," to aid him in the design of the most important element of the spot. The two foot long fetus McVey sculpted was next cast in a gypsum cement mold, a hi-grade plaster of paris. The fetus mold was cast in eight pieces, known as undercuts, and baked for five hours. Once baked, McVey was ready to apply talents cultivated on productions of The Dark Crystal, Gremlins, and other Lucasfilm productions. On these productions, many creatures were sculpted, cast and fit with armatures for eliciting movement in the arms, fingers, legs, and head. It was the armature technique that allowed the movement of the cigarette to the lips of the fetus. And it was this gesture which has been the major object of controversy with the spot.

With a mechanical aluminum joint, comprised of a ball, socket and hinge system, McVey assembled the cast pieces around the partial armature. An exit point for the armature cables was made at the elbow. Both the hands and feet of the fetus were wired for positioning purposes while two fingers of the hand that held the cigarette were cable operated via the partial armature system.

The next step in bringing the figure to life was to transform the eight piece mold into a humanlike context. …

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