Unfortunately, or fortunately for the ducks, a truly dirty bird wasn't available at the time of the shoot, so the entire scenario was staged at the International Bird Rescue and Research Center in Fairfield, Calif., with an authentic team of rescuers - though everything else was faked. The single duck that's lovingly scrubbed in the spot was actually portrayed by about six feathered thespians. Because of a "heartbeat thing," the ducks "would expire if they're handled more than 30 minutes at a time," agency producer Colin Pearsall explains. As they've been doing in rescues for the last 20 years, the handlers cleaned the birds with Dawn during the shoot. (Talk about brand loyalty!) For the bad stuff, they used a good-for-ducks concoction made from the non-toxic gooey playstuff known as Gak, thanks to an idea from props master Jody Weisenfeld, and a black charcoal substance the Center actually feeds to birds to protect their digestive tracts after real disasters. "The combination of those two became a thick, oily veneer that we actually stretched and wrapped around the ducks," says Pearsall.
Kaye played a crucial role in making the re-enactment look genuine, according to Pearsall, although, for the most part, he wasn't involved until the actual shoot. "His whole take was, 'This is a real process,' " Pearsall notes. "We began to explain everything to him on the phone, but he said, 'That's great, but I'm not going to see anything or talk about it until the day before we shoot.' He wanted to remain true to the authenticity of the process." Assisted by local production company Big Trout, Kaye finally showed up on shoot day and went to work on a real-time duck cleaning with an Arri 3. "He captured angles and closeups of the ducks and the toothbrush that made you really feel present," Pearsall observes. "We wanted to keep it simple and true and had approached other directors, but their reels were more crafted, art-directed and somewhat forced. The strength of Tony's reel is this feeling of capturing emotional intimacy in a very unadorned, naturalistic way."
In the end, with editing by Emily Dennis at Mad River Post, everything looks remarkably immediate, as a documentary should, and most of the shoot went flawlessly - save for one moment when everyone's fingers were crossed. The final scene was supposed to show the cleansed bird being released into the wild blue yonder. But most of the duck performers were "hybrids," Pearsall notes. "They're neither purely wild nor domestic. Some were actually rescued from bad-environment situations, but they had become used to hanging around the facility. They weren't going to fly away."
Fortunately, "We kept for the end a wild duck that had been saved in an earlier incident, and it jumped out as soon as we opened the cage." And Kaye was right on it with a hand-held, to capture its joyful burst to freedom.