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Kyle Seago, one of the founders of the NFFTY film festival in Seattle, wears an Oculus Go headset to promote the addition of more VR experiences at this year’s event. (GeekWire Photo / Todd Bishop)

Back in 2007, three Seattle teens who grew up with a love for making films decided to help others share their work with a wider audience, creating the National Film Festival for Talented Youth, or NFFTY.

Fast-forward to today, as the festival gets set this month to open for the 12th time, and NFFTY is bigger than ever. Organizers are again looking to attract young people interested in creating in innovative ways. As part of that goal, NFFTY is amping up the X, as in NFFTYX, a component of the festival that celebrates and explores virtual reality and 360-degree films.

Kyle Seago co-founded NFFTY with Jocelyn R.C. and Jesse Harris. Seago credits a “world renowned” film program at Seattle’s Ballard High School with putting him on the path he’s on today. He said the program, taught by NFFTY “unsung hero” Matt Lawrence is so in-depth, with a focus on foundational filmmaking techniques, that it’s like getting a college education.

“By the time I’d been through a couple of years, I was making work that was getting noticed by other organizations around the country,” Seago said. “But there was nothing really for me to do with the work besides submitting it for potential awards or showing it to my parents and doing a screening in their living room.”

A trip to the Sundance Film Festival as a 15-year-old proved transformative, and flipped a switch in Seago. Along with Harris and R.C., he started a nonprofit.

“We started the festival and the first year it was us going out online and just searching for youth-made films and asking if we could play people’s films in our festival,” said Seago, who was a junior in high school at the time. “We played a night of 15 films,” he added, and 200 of the 400 seats in the theater were filled by family and friends.

That kick-off festival was held in 2007 at Nesholm Lecture Hall at McCaw Hall. The following year it was expanded to a three-day festival and 73 films were selected from 176 entries. By 2017, NFFTY had received over 1,200 entries with 257 films selected, representing 27 countries and 28 U.S. states.

This year they are expecting 12,000 people to take in the festival from Oct. 25-28.

“Every year we’ve seen an increase in submissions,” Seago said. “We’ve seen young filmmakers from around the world come in either as 10-year-olds or as 12-year-olds or as 15-year-olds, and just be blown away by the experience that they have over these four days in Seattle. And what’s made it I think really effective is that it is in Seattle, which is an accessible city, so people come here and they don’t feel lost like they would in L.A. or New York.”

There are awards given out after the closing night, but being selected and being promoted as part of NFFTY is considered a win. And the event has spawned major success stories such as Kevin Klauber, a film editor who worked on the Oscar-winning documentary features “Icarus” and “20 Feet From Stardom.”

As NFFTY has grown, the founders have seen a need to evolve beyond being just a film festival. A creative arm has been added, in which NFFTY acts as production company to serve as producers and the go-between for young filmmakers and brands that want to create content. Projects have been facilitated with Expedia, Nike and Vitamin Water.

And NFFTYX is the festival’s way of recognizing new technology and bringing it to young filmmakers, with the belief that they could be the ones to understand the technology best.

“They’re the ones that are actually going to grow up in this world of new technology that’s being created,” Seago said.

Seattle-based fearless360º —a collective of independent artists and producers — conceived of, secured Oculus as the sponsor and produced the first NFFTYX in 2017. Oculus is back this year, sponsoring everything associated with the immersive and 360-degree films.

The Official Gallery features works submitted by creators 24 and under, and they’ll be available to watch over three days at The Vera Project. The separate program from the main festival is free and open to the public, and films ranging in length from 2 to 10 minutes are screened individually in the headsets.

A screen shot from a film showing at NFFTYX: Marah shows her life and dreams inside Jordan’s massive refugee camp Za’atari as a young mother and aspiring filmmaker. “My husband helps and supports me to achieve my dreams, to become a professional photographer and a great filmmaker. My message to every girl in the world is, ‘Do not stop dreaming for any reason.'” (Photo via NFFTYX)

Among the 13 entries are a high school student who uses his photography to capture the danger and beauty of his neighborhood in Long Beach, Calif., and another filmmaker who captures a young Moroccan woman working to preserve her traditions in an ever-changing world. Another experience shows the journey of a bullet, from the point of view of the bullet, as it gets shot from a gun and then enters somebody’s body.

There will also be eight films from industry leaders showing in what’s called the Empathy Lounge, AR and VR experiences in the Immersive Showcase, bootcamps designed to teach VR and 360-degree filmmaking techniques, as well as panels and workshops.

Like anyone who is just starting to understand the potential of VR, Seago rattles off a number questions.

“While traditional 2D filmmaking is exciting and will still be exciting for a lot of people and is a great entry point for a lot of people, I think a lot of filmmakers are looking at ‘What is VR? What is AR? How can I utilize this? How can this change storytelling? How does it add to my storytelling? Are there jobs in VR? Can I actually work in this medium?'”

And instead of answers, he’s left with more questions.

“There’s been so many articles about ‘Is VR going to replace traditional filmmaking?’ or ‘Is it going to replace the theater going experience?’ ‘What’s the future of going to cinemas across the country?’ Obviously I don’t have any answers, but I think anyone who thinks that it’s going to replace filmmaking is probably a bit off or a bit misguided because I think it’s only gonna be in tandem with what is being created for a cinema screen. I think there’s so much opportunity.”

(NFFTY Image)

Seago’s own skepticism around the medium was initially fueled by the fact that he’s not a gamer, and he considered VR to be targeted toward that set. But he’s interested in the connection, how the adventure is pre-determined but can be altered by the user depending on where that user is looking.

“There’s a sort of autonomy to it where you can actually create your own experience within the world that’s been created for you,” said Seago, who mentions “The Machine to Be Another” and “Life of Us” as two projects that have captured his attention. “I think people that are just maybe film buffs are like, ‘Oh, that’s just for gamers, that’s just for nerds or whatever.’ No, this is actually for creators who want to create something powerful and want to push the envelope of what you can create as an experience.”

It’s also important to NFFTY that the experience of creating this content, starring in it and watching it be accessible to all people. As a student of film, Seago is well-versed in the history of his medium and what can be done better.

“This is not necessarily about getting cameras and technology into the hands of our most affluent creators. It’s about doing targeted outreach and saying to people who haven’t traditionally had access, ‘We would love to have you involved in this and what can we do to help you get there and show up and be a part of this?'” Seago said. “That’s targeting disadvantaged communities around Seattle and beyond and being a model for what can be done in this medium.”

The 12th annual NFFTY film festival runs Oct. 25-28 in Seattle. Check the website for schedule and ticket information.

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