For many Genesis fans, 1972’s Supper’s Ready is the ultimate example of the band’s ambition, a sprawling 23-minute epic divided into seven sections. It namechecks figures from the bible, ancient history, greek mythology and British political life, and was once described by Peter Gabriel as “the ultimate cosmic battle for Armageddon between good and evil in which man is destroyed, but the deaths of countless thousands atone for mankind, reborn no longer as Homo Sapiens.” It’s complicated.
So why would anyone choose to spend months making an illustrated video to accompany the song? Nathaniel Barlam knows the answer. An artist and architect based in New York City, he works for a company that specialises in designing complex façade systems for skyscrapers and other large projects, but in his spare time he play drums… and works on illustrating songs. Nathan’s video for Supper’s Ready may just be the ultimate expression of his ambition.
Why pick Supper’s Ready for your film?
From my very first listen, I knew I’d want to illustrate this song someday. From its technical eloquence to the band’s pageantry in performing it live, Supper’s Ready weaves so many strands together that it would have been easy for it to have become a mess in lesser hands; and yet instead Genesis at the height of their powers created what may be the greatest song ever composed. It’s such a beautiful and complex work that I felt compelled to provide a visual interpretation through illustration and video, both to further my own understanding of the song as well as hopefully expose its brilliance with a wider audience.
You set yourself quite a challenge. Why not pick a three-minute song?
Well I’ve done some illustrations in the past of shorter songs, and before starting on Supper’s Ready I’d known for a while that I wanted to try my hand at something bigger. My other illustrations have been of two Joni Mitchell songs (Song for Sharon and Amelia off her album Hejira) and one Crosby, Still & Nash song (Guinnevere off their self-titled debut), all of which can be found on my YouTube channel. These led me to believe that there’s something powerful that can come from illustrating the lyrics and music of classic songs, an entry into what can often be an intimidating piece of work (especially with Joni Mitchell’s jazz-influenced period). The best work I’ve done comes from music with a deeply engrained narrative, so to grow from illustrating a single epic song I considered illustrated an entire album (such as Astral Weeks). But before taking that plunge, Supper’s Ready presented me the perfect stepping stone to further my development as an artist. It’s just long enough to make the labor a months-long process, but just short enough to not become a years-long process. And in tackling it, I now feel confident to try almost anything.
Tell us about making it. And how many illustrations make up the movie?
Unlike my earlier three illustrations, which I did while a student in college, I made the choice to illustrate Supper’s Ready completely digitally. This was because unlike those works, which I laid out in a traditional comic style of pages and panels, I wanted to also make Supper’s Ready more animatic, so that its final form is in a video/comic fusion rather than as a comic strip transferred to a panning video. The process was arduous as this was my first time drawing digitally, but I grew to enjoy the freedom it gave me and the ability to also add elements of animation when the song called for it. As I worked, I tried to experiment with my new tools and reflect not only the song’s lyrics, but also its changing moods and themes (as inspired from the band’s incredible live performances).
In total, I’d estimate somewhere around 400 different illustrations make up my movie, though it’s not an easy number to pin down. I often relied on the effect of layering images to allow a subtle change in a character in time with the song, such as having the lover’s eyes open as Peter Gabriel sings “Hasn’t it?” to highlight the unsettling mood of the first section. A lot of time was also spent editing the movie together, working to create animation effects for both the images and the text.
What did you learn about the song that you didn’t already know?
Everything! Seriously, there is so much that’s been written about this song and there was so much that I got out of working on this movie and yet I feel like we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg. That’s one of the reasons I think it still resonates so strongly with fans after all these years. It’s an enigma that is constantly gaining new meaning, and for me this emerged in my decision to litter my work with allusions and references to other Genesis songs (as well as some songs from the solo work of the bandmates). I see Supper’s Ready as a synecdoche for all the music the band would write together (from prog to pop) and all the music they’d write apart. It’s like a prophetic roadmap to each of their individual paths through life.
What’s the best feedback you’ve had so far?
I’ve been incredibly grateful to get a huge outpouring of positive feedback from fans old and new alike. I think some of the best comes from the hardcore fans, those who’ve loved this song for decades before I was born, and who humble me by thanking me for the work I’ve put into illustrating it. I also love seeing all the fans that try to pinpoint the dozens of song references I’ve put into my work, with some of them finding connections that I hadn’t even realised were there myself! Just like I said, the song seems to contain everything in its 23 minutes…
Are you going to make another film?
I definitely want to keep making these, but it comes down to a matter of time and inspiration. I really enjoyed working digitally, so I think moving forward that will be my medium of choice. Because I do these in my spare time, it takes a lot of assurance in my mind for me to commit to starting a new one, but once I start I’m dedicated to finish.
Working on these videos is in part my way of thanking musicians whose work has had a deep impact on my life, and my hope is that through my illustrations I can share these songs with other people who haven’t heard them before. Music has helped me through many hard times in my life, and my goal is that through my illustrations others can also discover songs that enrich their own lives.