Chad Burns: Mechanical Engineer Turned Movie Director

chad-burnsDr. Chad Burns, 32, is a homeschool graduate and Christian movie director known for the period action adventure films Pendragon: Sword of His Father and Beyond the Mask. Chad developed an appreciation for history, literature, and music during his twelve years of homeschooling. He enjoyed playing the violin as well as playing baseball. For Chad, moviemaking started out as just a fun family hobby, and his career dream was to become a rocket scientist employed at a NASA lab. But as a college student he found that filmmaking gave him an abstract break from the concrete precision of his engineering studies.

In 2011, Chad received a Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where he studied mobile robotic control systems (his advisor graciously gave him time off to finish Pendragon). Chad enjoyed working on engineering design teams, several of which were national in scope. Much of his research investigated human interaction with remote vehicles and focused on understanding how to design better receding horizon control navigation algorithms. He also made films about some of the engineering projects that he worked on.

On August 20, 2011, Chad married professional artist Angela Burns (née Sekerak). Angela studied representational art at Pensacola Christian College, is a member of Oil Painters of America, and says that it’s a privilege “to see, enjoy, and reflect God’s glory in the created world.” In 2013 Chad and Angie had their first child, Eve, and their maternity need was shared by members of Samaritan Ministries, a Biblical non-insurance approach to health care. Chad said, “The checks came in, and the bills got paid. It was fantastic.” Angie now stays home with their daughter, Eve, and continues to paint part time.

Throughout Chad’s growing up years, his father and uncle would gather their families together for Christmas holidays and summer vacations. During that time, the nine homeschooled cousins and their parents would all work on some grand project – which included building a log cabin and a fort! These two homeschooling families started their adventure in filmmaking a decade ago when Chad’s younger brother, Peter, wanted to make a film about the history of manned flight. Chad told Home School Heartbeat, “in our homeschool experience, like many homeschoolers, there was a big emphasis on the metanarrative, or what was the big story behind what was happening. So we read a lot of books. And when we studied a subject, there would a great deal of digging into finding out what was really going on, what was the big arc. And so that flowed directly into the filmmaking experience.” Filmmaking soon became a major part of the Burns’ life, and literally the whole family contributes to the making of a Burns family film.

Burns Family Studios began work on their first major production, Quest for Glory, in late 2003. Chad directed the Civil War tale which starred Nick Burns as a fame-hungry doctor and Aaron Burns as a glory-bound West Point cadet. Quest for Glory debuted at the San Antonio Independent Christian Film Festival. Their next movie, Pendragon, a historical drama set in Arthurian England, was a semi-finalist at the Saint Antonio Independent Christian Film Festival in January 2009. As the director of Pendragon, Chad was responsible for setting an agenda and pulling together the all-volunteer cast and crew. In addition to directing, Chad also enjoyed his role in the film as Lailoken, Artos’ wise advisor. Pendragon received 14 awards and recognitions from national and international film festivals.

With the Burns Family Studios clearly succeeding, Chad discovered that a degree in mechanical engineering can take you a long way, perhaps because it is the most diverse of all the engineering disciplines. (The legendary film director Alfred Hitchcock also had a degree in mechanical engineering.) Chad’s cousin Aaron, who has a BS in Integrative Studies and an MBA in Marketing from Oakland University, worked on developing the Burns Family Studios business plan, drafting the necessary legal documents, securing financial resources, and of course marketing. Additional siblings and family members fill other key roles.

After Pendragon was picked up for international distribution as well as by some TV stations, the influence of Burns Family Studios began to extend far beyond just making movies “by homeschoolers for homeschoolers.” The end result is that they were able to make an ambitious new feature film, Beyond the Mask, for mainstream theatrical release. The production, marketing and distribution of Beyond The Mask was still completely grassroots. They started off with a Kickstarter campaign in 2011, raised the money, produced the picture, and then worked out a deal with Gathr to play it for one night in selected theaters around the country. They marketed through churches, social media, homeschool groups, and with volunteers from across the country. Assuming it did well, they would be looking for larger distribution.

Beyond the Mask is a faith-based family adventure that brings Colonial America to life in a compelling and powerful story with Christian themes about redemption and second chances. Will Reynolds, an assassin for the British East India Company, is double-crossed and goes on the run in an effort to “redeem his past by thwarting a plot against a young nation’s hope for freedom. As his past life closes in on him, Will must somehow gain the trust and the help of his beloved Charlotte — as well as Ben Franklin — while he races against time to defuse a plot of historical proportions.” What follows is a fun-filled, action packed tale as Reynolds dons a mask and cloak, and takes up the gauntlet of protecting the innocent and bringing the bad guys to justice… think Zorro and The Lone Ranger.

According to the Burns Family Studios mission, “we are committed to producing quality, Christ-centered action adventure films, because we believe stories can touch hearts, and Christ can change lives. Our goal is to reach as many individuals, families and churches as we can with a message that will quicken the spirit, fire the imagination and inspire the family.” Chad says, “film is the language of our culture. If we want to reach people with a message today, one of the great ways we can do that is through a two-hour feature film.” They chose the action-adventure film, with its hero story, as the genre that most clearly conveys their purpose. “Everyone longs for a hero, someone who will sacrifice himself for his friends, who will put others first. We want to believe that person exists,” adds Chad. At the same time, Burns Family Studios strives to “represent Jesus Christ in as real, in as compelling a way as we possibly can” through film.

Filmmaking calls for flexibility, and Chad must “wear a different hat” in each step of the long process. Chad and Aaron worked together on Beyond the Mask planning the locations for shooting, building sets, mapping the action, scheduling, and recruiting the cast and crews for everything from lighting to cooking. Chad told TheBlaze that he believes that his and his cousin’s experience as homeschooled students helped prepare them for their movie-making roles. “In the homeschool environment, there is a lot of diversity of age and ability and attitude,” he said. “I think growing up in the homeschool world, we had a  predilection of working with people ahead of us and behind us, and when it came to building the huge eclectic team that created ‘Beyond the Mask,’ that was a huge strength.”

To produce the quality film they hoped to achieve, they hired a variety of skilled professionals in the field. Peabody Award-winning writer Paul McCusker (Adventures in Odyssey) wrote the screenplay, and Stephen Kendrick (Facing the Giants, Fireproof, Courageous) offered counsel throughout the filmmaking process. During production, Chad directed a cast of 30 actors with 60 crewmembers. Chad said, “Most people don’t realize what a large team is involved in making a feature film. I’m really humbled to have worked with so many amazing people.” Every leading role is played by a professional actor: Andrew Cheney (Seasons of Gray) as Will, the man with a dark past determined to build a brighter future; Kara Killmer (Chicago Fire) as the convicted and conflicted Charlotte; and John Rhys-Davies (Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Lord of the Rings) as the evil villain. (He actually passed on a couple of other projects because he wanted to play this really fun bad guy character.) Chad says working with so many talented people all at once created “an intense outpouring of energy.”

After editing the film with Los Angeles-based Mike Wech, Chad and Aaron hired a new round of professionals for the film’s musical score, visual effects, audio mix, and color grading. German-born award-winning composer Jurgen Beck researched Colonial-era music and created an authentic score using period instruments such as the zither and field drums. The sound was mixed in Burbank especially for the big screen theatrical experience, and Roush Media in Los Angeles did the color grading. It should be noted that Beyond the Mask takes full advantage of the green screen and big-budget CGI special effects, which is rather groundbreaking for a low budget Christian movie. All of these qualities – along with its well-written story and brilliant acting – give Beyond the Mask that authentic blockbuster / cinematic feel.

Beyond the Mask is a giant leap forward for the Christian filmmaking industry. Christian moviegoers will undoubtedly find Beyond the Mask to be a cinematic breath of fresh air as it weaves together all the elements of an exciting National Treasure type film without compromising on core biblical values or sacrificing a Christian worldview. At the same time, secular moviegoers will find themselves fully immersed in a movie that is fun and enjoyable to watch, without being turned off by an overly preachy story.

Moreover, Beyond the Mask proves that it is possible to make a romantic adventure movie that is genuinely entertaining without relying on excessive violence, offensive language, or gratuitous sex scenes so often found in big-screen action films. The key to keeping it interesting is intelligent dialogue, plot twists, and characters you can identify with – not to mention authentic details, passionate storytelling, and spectacular cinematography.

Beyond the Mask set a new record for debuting on the most screens in the history of on-demand distribution. (An on-demand theatrical release is a model in which fans request that a movie be shown in their local theaters.) More than 25,000 tickets were reserved across the country for the movie’s release on April 6, 2015. On Friday, June 5, Beyond the Mask opens in select theaters for a weeklong run. For one whole week, this faith-based adventure will play alongside summer blockbusters and, according to Courageous producer Stephen Kendrick, “… will give Hollywood a run for its money!”

Beyond the Mask received the Dove Foundation’s “Family Friendly” seal and a Five-Dove review (their highest rating), calling the film, “amazing … a stunning visual feast!” Mainstream reviewer Kam Williams wrote that Beyond the Mask is “a swashbuckling Revolutionary War saga featuring an absorbing mix of romance, derring-do and patriotism served up as a parable of Biblical proportions.”

Make your plans now to see Ben Franklin, George Washington, and other unforgettable characters in this faith-filled adventure celebrating grace, liberty, and the true freedom that can only be found in Christ. Make it an evening or afternoon at the movies with your family, church group, homeschool group, or any other group that loves a great action-adventure film!

With a successful opening weekend (Friday, June 5–Sunday, June 7), Beyond the Mask will then play longer in these first 100 theaters and likely open in new ones! Start the summer off with a bang by seeing Beyond the Mask starting June 5th! Since the movie has a Revolutionary War theme, it would be great to see it stay in theaters through the 4th of July!

Find the theater list here:

Learn more about Beyond the Mask here.

Like Beyond the Mask on Facebook.

Download a free Beyond the Mask Study Guide.

“Our desire is to reach young people with a message of finding their hope and identity in Christ,” says Chad. Focus on the Family created a free activity and study guide (including a section targeted to teens) that delves deeper into the topic of “identity” that your family can discuss after watching the movie Beyond the Mask.



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