There is a sacred window of childhood where just about everything seems to have a life of its own: a sort of personified universe. Many of us lose this animated worldview as we “mature,” but puppeteers are lucky enough not to. Ainslie Henderson’s “Stems” is a piece that illustrates the fascination with collecting old, broken, or dead inanimate objects which have “already had a life,” and the way that animation allows them another chance to live—but only for a brief moment.
“Suddenly what was just stuff becomes this character, staring back at you,” the film’s narrator explains, “and what I love about stop motion puppets is that they have this inherent sadness about them…everything they do is their swansong. You know, they have a tiny little life, and then they just go back to being inanimate objects again.”
With animation by Michael Hughes and music by Poppy Ackroyd, “Stems” allows the viewer a window into the mind of an animator—a quiet moment to reflect on their point of view, maybe for the first time. As we are entertained at seeing the old bits of plants, electronics, and other flotsam and jetsam come to life, we are simultaneously reminded that this is essentially their last gasp. The child in us all listens closely and a bit of sadness moves in.
At the same time, a new appreciation for the power of animation rises as the piece comes to a close and we get to see all of the puppets come together to play in a giant swansong band. What we are left with is a melancholic appreciation for what has been done for us here, and this thought: what better use for a piece of art than to raise our valuation for the entire form itself?