The making of Crumbles: nabs’ singing and dancing mental health messenger

On Wednesday, nabs released a new spot that delivers a powerful message about overwork and mental health in the industry.

The nearly three-minute spot uses a singing and dancing cracker named Crumbles to deliver a poignant message to an exhausted, burned out young creative: “This job can break you if you let it.”

“We hope that this campaign encourages people within the industry—from all levels of seniority—to recognize the signs of mental burnout and distress early and take advantage of the many services and resources that nabs has available. No one needs to go through this alone,” said Mark Neves, director, central at nabs.

The video is by Cossette, working with Skin & Bones for production, Tantrum Studio for animation, Pirate for audio, and Outsider Editorial for offline editing.

When the Cossette creative team of Nicole Ellerton and Jacob Greer started sharing their idea for a spot about overwork in the industry with possible partners, the response was almost always the same: “We’d get two sentences in, and they’d be like ‘I get it, that’s us. Where can we help?'” said Ellerton. “It’s very meta in a way, asking people to put in the hours about a spot that’s about putting in the hours. But it’s for the greater good, and we all felt incredibly passionate about it.”

On Thursday, The Message (virtually) watched the video with Ellerton and Greer, and asked them to provide their own commentary, sharing some of their thinking about everything from the script and shot selection, to the casting and singing.

0:00: “The opening wide shot was probably an exaggeration of being in the office to that degree by yourself, in that much empty space,” said Greer. But it was important to establish that feeling of isolation for the main character.

0:03: We meet our beleaguered hero: An exhausted, overworked young creative trying to figure out a new way to sell crackers. The actress is Nicole Moller, and casting was by Jigsaw.

“There was something really lovely about her overall persona,” said Ellerton. “She doesn’t scream ‘I’m a loud, aggressive, kind of gritty creative.’ And a lot of times that’s what happens. We have this outward presence: We’re constantly presenting, we’re constantly giving our all… But it gets very quiet when we’re all alone. There’s a lot of self-doubt, and she really captured that spirit very well.”

0:12: Crumbles walks out from behind the box of crackers. “Hopefully people are in from here on out,” said Greer. “This is just a great moment to get people’s attention and introduce our character with a little bit of mystery.”

0:16: Crumbles speaks. When Chris Tait from Pirate sang a version of the song, it was too pretty, said Greer. They wanted someone who could sing, but was not super polished. “We went through the list of people who we know who can sing. A friend of ours, Jono Hunter, who’s also a director, he’s in a band… so I reached out to him and was like ‘Hey here’s a script, can you give us some demos to see if your voice works?'” He was just what they wanted. So the guy who directed this and this is also the voice of Crumbles.

0:26: After Crumbles begins his song, the overworked creative just rolls her eyes—she’s heard it all before. And then Crumbles really starts to perform. “We all kind of do this song and dance,” said Ellerton. “Like we’re martyrs for our work. Everyone talks about ‘Oh I’m so busy, I’m this, I’m that.’ We wear it as a badge… it’s super busy, but everyone else is busy, so what do I have to complain about? So there’s a bit of a double meaning [to the song and dance].”

0:54: The spot turns to some of the coping mechanisms, including obviously troubling ones like whiskey and drugs.

1:01: “But also the everyday stuff, like the pain medications,” said Elleron. “The Tylenol and the Advil, those are just in all of our desks and we expect them to be there… it’s become so normal. There are extremes [whiskey and drugs], for sure, but there’s also just the day-to-day coping stuff… And not coincidentally, they’re right beside the award.”

1:03: “The pill bottle throwing a pill back into its lid is probably one of my favourite parts,” said Greer.

1:22: The song turns to disappointed friends and missed birthday. So how personal were the lyrics? “I’d say it was pretty easy to write,” said Greer. “You miss a lot of birthdays, you make a lot of sacrifices, your mom maybe doesn’t even understand what exactly your job is, and wonders why you’re doing it at all hours, all the time.”

Even though both Ellerton and Greer are in more senior positions, they have teams to worry about, and family responsibilities they didn’t have when they were starting out, said Ellerton. “The roles evolve but the pressure is still there. We could have made a 15-minute song.”

1:29: The spot starts to build to the big F-You moment (1:40), with the computer screen filling with notifications and a call from the boss. Any discussion or concerns about that F-you line? “No, because it’s more about a feeling than it is a literal action kind of thing,” said Greer. “And I think once you see there’s the flood of pop ups, there’s the phone call, it is a little bit of that pushing you to the brink, and Crumbles trying to be encouraging about speaking up and finding boundaries.”

“We really wanted to be authentic, to speak like we speak,” added Ellerton. “So it’s what Jacob said: It’s not necessarily about the curse. It’s really about that utter frustration and that breaking point, and Crumbles is her voice, but he’s also her friend. He’s trying to get to her.”

1:45: The chorus line comes in. “We wanted to be able to amp things up, give it a place to go. Crumbles is trying to make this pitch and trying to get her to pay attention, and she keeps working and he’s not breaking through,” said Greer. “It’s like ‘Okay, bring up the chorus line, bring up the fireworks.’ How do we keep it rising in terms of the energy and the power of things.”  

2:05: The song is over and the tone takes a hard turn when the smile vanishes from Crumbles face. “We really wanted to get to this emotional change because [up until that point] it’s entertaining, and it’s insightful and relatable… people really come along for the ride,” said Greer. “But there’s a real issue we wanted to make sure that we landed—the gravitas of what we’re talking about and what we’re dealing with. Getting this emotional change in there was really important… You kind of maybe get a little misty when you see Crumbles switch over.”

2:12: Our young creative seems even more worn down. “This is the moment where it’s almost like an overstimulation of all of the considerations that Crumbles has brought to her,” said Ellerton. “In a way she’s almost disconnecting even from Crumbles… she’s just so heavy with her own thoughts, and that’s what it’s like when you get to that point. It doesn’t matter what someone says. It doesn’t matter what you tell yourself—you’re kind of frozen, a bit paralyzed and like ‘I don’t know what to do.'”

2:22: Crumbles takes her hand and says “Let’s go” and she smiles slightly: “We really didn’t want the mood to lift, we wanted her to smile in terms of knowing that there is help, there’s a glimmer, there’s a light,” said Ellerton. “But we never wanted to end making it feel like everything’s going to be okay, because that’s not real life. Just because they’re leaving this office, she still has a path ahead of her. The idea that she walks out, she’s got a little buddy here and there’s this long walk down a long hallway was also really conceptual. It’s a journey that we’re on together.”

David Brown