Anne Frank VR - Sounds of the Secret Annex

Anne Frank - Sounds of the Secret Annex

Once in a while, a project comes along that makes you realize that -for all the fun and joy sound design can be- our work can also bring huge responsibilties. This was one of those projects.

Last January we were asked by Force Field VR in Amsterdam if we wanted to get involved in a VR experience about Anne Frank and her life in the Secret Annex from 1942 to 1944. 
Obviously one does not say no to a project like that, especially if it involves top actor Liev Schreiber as the narrator.

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Background

The Anne Frank House in Amsterdam is the original location of the Secret Annex where the Frank and Van Pels families stayed in hiding during the second World War in hopes of avoiding  the persecution of Jews by the Nazi's. Due to the historical importance of the story and how it ties into that specific location, the organization wanted to develop a way for people all around the world to experience life in the Secret Annex without having to go to the actual location.
The VR experience consists of a virtual tour, guided by Anne who reads important passages from her diary as the user clicks on interactive objects and learns about what it was like to be in hiding during the second World War.
The sound design for the largest part hinged on creating a convincing and historically accurate experience that puts the user in the correct context to experience Anne's story from her perspective.

We spent a lot of time researching what Amsterdam must have sounded like during those years and we tried to get as close to this as possbile with each detail.

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SFX

One of the very first things we wanted to do was to try and capture as much of the sonic character of the original locations as possible. Because this is a VR experience, we had decided that the stereo roomtone -the auditory "baseline" -had to be binaural.
The kind people of the organization granted our wish and allowed us to record each room of the Annex before opening hours. Needless to say this was a breathtaking and slightly intimidating experience. To stand in the actual place where this story was written and takes place, is humbling.

This proved no easy feat however. Having never visited the Annex before we anticipated that it would be a long-shot in terms of quality and as it turned out this was exactly the case. The climate control system, cleaning & maintenance crew, modern lighting, and several other factors gave us a good run for our money and we had to find the correct spots and timings to get the most out of it.
In the end we managed to capture a siginifcant amount of interesting sounds (church bells, pigeons, outside hustle & bustle) that  gave us a good perspective of what it sounded like from within the Annex in order to recreate it, and many of the roomtones turned out useable after spectral cleaning.

On top of the binaural recordings we made an impusle response of each room that helped us blend in the ambient sounds together with the roomtone.

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We had a long list of assets that we wanted to integrate, splitting them between outside and inside sources.   
Because historical accuracy was important to us, we commited to finding as much historically correct sounds as possible, ranging from the correct type of trucks used by the Germans in 1942, down to the Carillon that plays in the Westerkerk (church) next door.
During World War 2, there was a tramline going through the large street next to Anne's house, and we were able to track down a tram from the exact type (and potentially the actual tram) that was used at the time. The people of the Electric Tram Museum in Amsterdam allowed us to record several bell sounds for the experience and obviously we jumped at the opportunity. 

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One important factor in the design, we felt, was that the interior of the Annex had to feel isolating. The outside world was going without Anne being a part of it and even though she remained hopeful, she was still in hiding and terror could strike at any moment.  To emphasize this feeling of seclusion we added many common day to day life sounds. Life in the house is audible (people walking overhead, handling noise in the next room, etc), but always feels removed from the observer to keep the focus on Anne's story.

Music

The music, composed by Ramon, was based on an early draft suggested by Martin de Ronde, Creative Director at Force Field VR. 
De Ronde had decided he wanted a very basic and quiet but ominous score to support the narrator in the opening and closing sequences that expressed both hope counterpointed with a sense of impending doom.
As the story is being narrated, it progresses through different cycles of experience from Anne's perspective: she's in love but the world is at war; living in the Annex is scary but it's exciting at times as well; during the day there are trees and birds and sunshine, but at night heavy bombers and anti-aricraft guns are heard -- there is this constant tension throughout her story that resonates between hope and hopelessness, that had to be reflected in the composition. 

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While the chords progress throughout the composition and keep changing modes to reflect the ever-changing situation that the family finds itself in, the motif itself stays consistent, representing the commitment of the family to make it out alive of their ordeal. 
The composition then unfolds as it follows the narrator while he explains the constant attempt of the family to stay one step ahead of their fate. 
A drone-like ambient looms in the background, fading in and out to bring the ever-present fear of being captured by the Nazi's, and serves as a counter-point to the hopeful and melancholic main motif.
The story does not end well, and as such the score finds itself dwindling down, ending withered and almost dissonant before a reprisal where Anne's legacy is celebrated.

Vocals

Much to our amazement Force Field VR was able to secure actor Liev Schreiber who provided an intense and incredibly intimate narration to the experience. Schreiber, of Jewish hertitage himself, is one of the finest (voice) actors in Hollywood and we were lucky enough to be able to work with him.
 

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Anne Frank VR is an incredibly interesting and intimate experience that contains a more important message than any VR experience we've experienced. It's not something you go through for fun, but it is gorgeous, immersive, and carries a message that is forever relevant.

Do yourself a favor, and check out the game here.

Check out the project page here.