Soundtracks and storytelling – Blending audio and visuals to evoke emotion

Music plays a significant role in storytelling creating a sense of empathy for the characters in a video. It connects a viewer to what is happening on screen by placing them in the same emotional atmosphere as the characters.

In September 2022, Rooftop delivered a powerful animation about how UNICEF was helping to vaccinate refugees during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the past, we’ve created many awareness videos about critical topics like child marriage, nutrition and mental health, but the client’s vision for this project was different.

The head of the UNICEF team felt very strongly that the lived experiences of countless refugees needed to come through so strongly that the audience couldn’t ‘look away’. Not only were refugees dealing with the loss of loved ones and fleeing their homes due to conflict, but they were also facing an invisible threat – the COVID-19 pandemic.

We worked very closely with the client to develop a fictional story that was inspired by case studies and true refugee stories. Our Rooftop team took special care to weave small human moments into the narrative, like the father worrying about the kind of shoes his children should wear for their journey. 

A huge part of what drives an animated story is the sound

Our story follows the journey of a family who experience great loss, then flee from conflict to a refugee camp where they are cared for, and the father receives his COVID-19 vaccine before they begin the long journey of rebuilding their lives.  The little girl in the video narrates their story for the audience.

When a story is so emotionally driven like this one, we knew it would need a composition that could help take the audience on a journey. It couldn’t simply be chosen from a digital music database.

The inspiration for the soundtrack for the video came from a piece called “The Song” which is used in the soundtrack of “Song of the Sea”, an animation about a Scottish legend. It has a young girl singing the melody, we felt was appropriate for our piece, as the story was told from the child’s perspective.

We also wanted to convey the idea of her song being a traditional lullaby that her mom would have sung to her.

The composition combines orchestral and cinematic genres with traditional folk music, in a lullaby form.

Taking viewers on an emotional journey through the script, animation and soundtrack

The piece begins in a very soft and sweet way with the little girl humming a lullaby, which subtly hints at sadness. The father character is represented by a solo traditional Arabic flute called a Ney. This has a warm, sad tone, and is used in a call and response fashion to the girl’s melody.

After the mom dies in the conflict zone, the sound of a twinkling bell represents her as a star in the sky. Here we move from a major to minor key, using a chord progression of secondary dominants. These are chords that don’t originally belong to the home key. This technique was used as it ties in with the displacement and estrangement of the family as they flee their hometown and find refuge in another city.

During the flight scene, the piano and oud (a traditional stringed harp like instrument) play quarter note arpeggios to add movement to the piece. It then slows down when the family are out at sea, and we hear the twinkling bell as the girl talks about her mom, followed by the flute as the father reflects on their struggle. 

When the family is in the refugee camp, we introduce a new theme in the strings section, but the overall feeling of the piece is still melancholy. We slowly build this up into a more hopeful and uplifting theme as the father receives his vaccination, using a fuller string section, playing an octave higher, with cymbal crashes alternating with the flute. 

The piece ends with the little girl’s melody in the major key, giving it a more hopeful and positive energy. This melody is stripped back on the repeat as the story ends, in the same way that it started.

The result was a powerful animation that touched the heart of millions of viewers. Since its release on YouTube in September 2022, it has been viewed over 1.3 million times. It was also shared widely on social media.

Watch the animation below:

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