An Open Letter to Santa - 2016

Dear Santa,

Greetings again after another year.  I'm sorry we don't keep in touch more.  I guess we both get busy doing our own things during the rest of the year, so that's no surprise.  How have the elves been this year?  Did your reindeer get enough training over the off-season?  I hope the weather currents aren't too harsh for your yuletide present run this year.

We've been doing a bit better this year in the Reynolds family.  We survived another hurricane season without any unfortunate mishaps here in Houston.  Thankfully we have also been able to improve out living conditions quite a bit this year after purchasing a townhome just down the road from where we had been living for the past four years.  I can tell you going from 1400 square feet to 2200 square feet makes a big difference.  Now my children actually have room to run indoors, I have an attic to store boxes, my wife can entertain guests, and I have a bathtub I can actually fit in.  Oh, and now I can grill.  And I grill a lot.  We thankfully moved down the road and it was relatively simple to pull off.  We also were able to keep our kids in the same school boundaries and can still attend the same church congregation we've been with since we moved to Texas.  It has been a real blessing.

I'm still gainfully employed at NASA's Johnson Space Center, working on future concepts of human spaceflight missions.  I've also started getting back into doing industrial design work on occasion, which is a welcome change from my normal day-to-day tasks.  I never seem to have enough time to do the creative things I want and I keep hoping something will change to get me enough mental energy at night to finish the dozens of projects I have dreamed up.  Maybe 2017 will be different.

My wife, Sarah, has had an up and down year, as I'm sure you've heard.  After giving birth last year, she sustained an injury in her back that wouldn't go away without surgery.  We were all a bit nervous going into it, but it seems as if the problem has been relatively resolved.  (Don't get me started on all the mess we had to sort out trying to get the doctor's office and insurance company to actually give each other the right information...)  Thankfully she has had a good challenge this year by becoming an independent sales consultant with Usborne Books.  She has filled our home with good books for our kids to read and made a difference in the lives of some of the families she has introduced the books to.  I'm glad she has found something that she can do from home while the kids still need her.  She's been working hard to get going and I'm proud to see her passionate about something.

My oldest, Leah, just turned five this past month.  I can't believe she's been a part of our family for five years.  She continually surprises me with how grown up she is getting.  She is now old enough to be a help instead of a hinderance and I'm grateful for the many times when she realizes the joy of helping out others.  The other night she cleaned up all the toys without being asked, just because she wanted to do something nice.  She's becoming quite the artist and loves to draw, color, paint, and play with play dough.  I see a lot of myself in her and I love it when we get to do the occasional daddy-daughter dates.

My son, Sean, is a boy.  A three year old boy.  And he has more energy than I think I'll ever have again.  I don't seem to be able to match the level of activity he seems to constantly be at.  I often say that he's got 100% of his mom's genes in him, which isn't bad, but I'm constantly having to learn things about him and how he functions, sort of the opposite of the way I am with Leah.  However, he's got a cheery attitude most of the time (even if it is coupled with a three-year old's sass 75% of the time) and is a friend to everyone.  Honestly, if you're not a scary monster, you're automatically his friend.  He's got a tender heart and even asks for nice things to happen to cartoon characters when he says his prayers at night.  It's adorable.

Lucy, my youngest, has been both a blessing and a curse to me this year.  Don't get me wrong, I think she's the cutest baby ever.  However, for the first year of her life I have been the one to get up in the middle of the night to take care of her, sometimes multiple times in the same night.  My mental health hasn't been that great as a result of it all and I've been exhausted for quite some time.  Thankfully she started sleeping through the night a bit more once we moved into our new home.  Aside from that, she's a pre-toddler that's just happy to be here.  She always gives us smiles, blows us kisses, and will come plop on you to give you a good hug.  She's definitely the cuddliest baby I've had, which makes up for all the times she transformed into a banshee-esque night demon.

I'm sure your elf intelligence network has already informed you that we mortals here down south have had a bit of a rough year during 2016.  The country I live in, particularly, has had less than Christmas-level feelings spread around this past year due to the political climate.  The recent presidential election brought out mediocre candidates and bad mojo all around.  It frankly got exhausting seeing each individual political ideology vilify anyone that deviated from their way of thinking.  As we headed into the holiday season, I don't think that feeling really got left behind.

Don't get me started on all the negative things that I hear about in the news.  Between the domestic violence in my nation to the civil unrest I read about abroad, it's been a bit hard to keep the light of hope shining in our hearts.  I think people are feeling a lot of darkness in their hearts right now, either due to circumstances or just hidden hurts.  I honestly don't think that presents are going to solve that problem, so maybe you have something else in that sack of yours that might help.

Usually in letters that people send you, they have a list of things that they'd like for Christmas.  I honestly can't say that I want anything.  I'm just excited to see my kids open their presents on Christmas morning, or to have my wife be surprised at the gift I got her (she's never going to guess it!).  I haven't given a single thought to what it is I want.  I guess that is something that just comes with getting older.  I'm not saying that I'm a selfless human being, by any means.  I mean, I'd love to have some new toys to play with or go on some fancy trips with the family, but the truth is that I really don't have time to play anymore.  All of the things I need aren't something you can put in your sack: more sleep at night, more self-confidence, more hours in the day (unless you've got a TARDIS... which I might be able to use). 

In the end, I think maybe just a little more hope is something I could use.  I haven't had a real vision for the past few years of what I wanted my life to be.  It's lead me to become a bit aimless, taking things one day at a time, trying to soak in whatever scraps of inspiration I can find.  I'm not totally lost right now, just a little dazed and confused.  Probably a lot of people are feeling that way.  If there's any way you could trade a few iPhone 7s in the world for some positivity, it would be appreciated by many more beyond myself.

So anyway, Santa, I hope your trip this Christmas Eve goes according to plan.  We'll leave out a plate of cookies for you.  Feel free to eat any leftovers in the fridge.  I know you need the calories to stay warm.  Most of all, have a Merry Christmas!


-Brad Reynolds.

P.S. If you really, really need to put something under the tree for me this year, here are a few things that I think would be really great: a Gibson ES-355; components for a high-end PC graphics workstation; an all-expense paid trip for the family to go to Disneyworld for a week; lifetime maintenance for any vehicle we own; free tickets to visit family out west; a 60-inch smart television with soundbar; Google Fiber; no more Micheal Bay Transformer movies; and a never-ending block of Parmesan cheese that has great flavor with zero calories.

P.P.S. I know those are all tall orders, so if you don't have room under the tree for them, no worries.  We've already been blessed with way more than we deserve.


Dear Santa: My Annual Open Christmas Letter

Dear Santa,

I can't believe it's been almost a year since the last Christmas.  How have you been in the meantime?  How is the missus?  I'd say you've been very busy this year with all the Star Wars merchandise that I've seen floating around.  Hopefully there are enough people still on the nice list to make use of them all.

So if you remember, last year we had to celebrate Chinese Christmas in February since we were out of town when the regular December Christmas celebration was happening.  This year, you can plan on a normal Christmas delivery to our home because we'll be staying home.  While I like the idea of spending the holidays with family, the reality of making that happen is significantly harder with three kids four and under.  I'm hoping for some quiet enjoyable time together this holiday season with just my wife and kids.  In fact, this is the first time I'll be taking off work during the holidays and not traveling, so I hope it is enjoyable as I am hoping it will be.

I have to admit, this past year was a bit of a doozy for my greater family as a whole.  2015 is not going down as one of my most favorite years.  It definitely didn't turn out to be anything like what we were promised in "Back to the Future."  Sure there are "hoverboards," but even those are causing more battery-exploding accidents than good.  This year my greater family has experienced multiple illnesses, including at least three ambulance rides and a number of hospital visits (some with multi-night stays).  We've seen hardship for our nieces an nephews.  We've seen unemployment and underemployment strike our family.  Overall, I'd say it was a net bad year.  If you zoom out, a level, there are a number of crises going on in the world that we all wish weren't there.

However, I don't want to dwell on the negative things going on.  Let me tell you about the blessings we have had.

First off, we were able to have a wonderful vacation this past summer in Destin, Florida.  We were happy to discover that place a few years ago and wanted to experience it again.  We were lucky to have my parents come out and stay with us.  Not only was it a fun time, but I was able to watch my children interact with their grandparents and reap the blessings of knowing them.  My parents are two of the greatest human beings I have ever had the pleasure to deal with and it is my hope that my children can grow up remembering them.

Secondly, my daughter Leah has been blessed to finally get into a pre-K class where she has had a wonderful teacher to help her along with some of her developmental problems.  The latest report was that she was doing great academically and might move out of the special education class and into the regular class.  It has been such a nice change to actually hear her communicate things to me, even if I can't clearly recognize all the words.  (Now, let's hope we can get potty-training down...)

Thirdly, my little Sean isn't so little anymore.  He's a cute, conniving little two-year-old with a pretty big heart.  He isn't shy about playing with anyone or going off to explore the world.  Unfortunately, that also translates into him not realizing the dangers that could face him.  I am constantly trying to make sure he doesn't kill himself or break something valuable, and that continually wears thin on me.  However, he can be pretty fun and he has such imagination.

Fourthly, my little Lucy Mae came to us miraculously about a month and a half ago.  We had been anticipating her arrival into our lives for quite some time.  However, when it got close to her delivery date, we discovered that she wasn't in the right position and floated between breach and transverse the last week.  Even after the doctor tried a painful procedure to try and get her into position, the little girl just wouldn't get to the right spot.  The only way we were going to get her out was through a c-section.  After lots of prayers by ourselves and our family, we went into the hospital and got all ready for the procedure to happen.  We said one last prayer before we were about to go into the operating room and put our fate in the hands of the Lord.  The doctor promised to do one last ultrasound before we went in, and we heard her exclaim, "Am I seeing this right?"  Lucy had moved head-down into the correct position, sometime right before.  We were all overwrought with emotions of gratitude as we learned we were going to have a normal delivery.  About twelve hours later, we were holding our little girl.  Although she isn't smiling at us yet, she has been such a wonderful blessing to have in our family.

Finally, I have been blessed with a wonderful wife who has a lot of faith in me.  She gives me much more credit than I deserve.  This past summer we left the kids with a friend for the weekend and took a trip to San Antonio to celebrate our birthdays.  It was one of the nicest trips I've been able to have.  You see, Sarah and I never really had much time get to be just "us" at the beginning of our marriage.  When we got married, we immediately focused on having kids.  Out of the five years we have been married, she has been pregnant half of the time.  With all that focus on family, it has made it much harder to learn to be a married couple.  So having just a little bit of time to focus on just us was such a wonderful experience.  I wish we had more opportunities to do just that.

So, as you see, Santa, I've already got pretty much all I want, and it's not even Christmas.  Sure, I'd love to build a new PC or live in a bigger place.  But I don't know if anything will ever compare to the blessings I've listed above.  I think this year I finally understood the real meaning of Christmas.  I was brought pretty low this year.  I'm sure I didn't handle everything with the right amount of patience and longsuffering.  I'm sure I made lots of mistakes.  However, I realized that there was a way to be forgiven of all my misdeeds, mistakes, and weaknesses.  We're celebrating that reason in a few days.  My Savior has come and I'm so grateful for His atonement.  I'm grateful that I can be made whole after I feel so empty.  I'm grateful that even through the darkness of this past year, I can still have a hope for a better existence.

So, Santa, go ahead and leave some stuff for the kids or whatever you've already got planned.  I'm sure we'll enjoy them.  Just know that I think we understand why you give presents.  I would be pretty generous too if I was celebrating the best news to reach humanity.


-Brad Reynolds

P.S. I forgot one more thing that I am grateful for: George Lucas didn't have anything to do with Star Wars VII.

P.P.S.  I'd really love a TARDIS if you have an extra one lying around...


MACES: Wrapping things up

It took me almost a year working between projects, but I finally finished up my model of the MACES spacesuit this week.

A heroic shot, because why not? 

 Various controls for the head and helmet

Turnaround renderings

Overall I am very pleased with how this turned out.  It's nothing all that glamorous compared to other spacesuit designs I have seen on the internet, but it will be a good asset for our studio to have.

I developed some pretty complex controls to the rig to simplify the time it takes to animate things.  Over the past few years of using Modo regularly, I have grown accustomed to how those controls need to be developed.  You can dynamically blend the arms between forward and inverse kinematics, open and close the hands, and open the visor and faceplate.  There is actually a lot of dynamic math that goes on behind the scenes to make the controls so easy.  For example, this is the setup for the left arm:

I guess all the practice I had in connecting and disconnecting audio visual equipment finally paid off.

I have a few more tidbits I want to add into this, but for now the base model will be a great addition to our animations.


MACES: An Update on a Work-Work Work in Progress

For the past two weeks between the all important "Let's Plan the Future of Space Exploration for the World" projects, I have been working heavily on our model of the MACES.  Last week I was able to spend a few days sculpting out all of the fine details like folds, wrinkles, and stitches on the model.  The high resolution ZBrush model was about 90 million polygons in the end with 19 different sub-meshes.  It's probably the most detailed ZBrush model I have ever done.  I am curious to know if there are faster ways of getting to an end result, or if I really am on par with how other ZBrush artists work elsewhere in the industry.

Compare this shot to the previous post and you'll see all the details.

The little details like the zippers and stitches are what really sell it.

 One of the most important selling points of a model like this is to see bunching and pinching of the fabric along any seams where it is sewn.  It is a long and arduous process to get it like that, but in the end it pays off.

Right now all of the "wrinkle" data is coming from a single 8K normal map, but I am considering redoing the UVs to fit is into two 8K maps.

I still need to create a mask parts of the bump map.  The light grey areas shouldn't have a weave pattern in them.

All in all, I am pleased with the progress, although I learned a lot about ZBrush practices along the way.  This is the first time I have ever maxed out my computer's RAM using ZBrush, all 24GB of it.  I still have to add a lot of other details in the hard-surface parts like the helmet, but this is good progress.


New Demo Reel

I decided it was time to update my demo reel now that I've worked at NASA for almost three years. I've come a ways since graduation.

MACES: A Work-Work Work in Progress

Every once in a while I get the chance to work on something that doesn't fall under the "Sensitive but unclassified" criteria.  One of the things I have been working on between projects at work is a newer, more detailed 3D model of the Modified Advanced Crew Escapes Suit, or MACES. Our current one was cobbled together from older models and photographs for textures.  Overall, it doesn't look that impressive when you put it against some of our other models.

Last August we got to go take some reference photos of the MACES in the lab where it is being developed.  It was a very fun experience and I can't say that I didn't geek out a bit.  This suit is being designed as a launch and reentry suit for the new Orion vehicle.  NASA developed the ACES (Advanced Crew Escape Suit) after the Challenger incident and used it all the way through the end of the shuttle program.  This is the next generation with a few modifications.

I was provided a laser scan of the suit and some basic CAD geometry from one of the engineers at the lab.  From there, I have been modeling all of the tiny little details of the helmet and adjustment straps.  This is as far as I have been able to get in the meantime, but it's ready for ZBrush and textures in Photoshop:

This is the shape of the suit once it is fully inflated.  Modeling the most neutral pose for the suit will ensure realistic movement when I rig and animate it.

I still have to sculpt out all the small details and wrinkles of the torso.  Thankfully, the laser scan I was provided helped out with reference and scale quite a bit.

 I just wanted to point out some one of the cool details about these renderings: there is reflective 3M tape on the back of the helmet that slightly refracts the light as is bounces off of it, causing a slight rainbow pattern in the reflections.  I found out a way to replicate that here in the shader.

Another interesting note is that the environment image that I used to light the model is actually a panorama of the suit lab that we took the reference photos in.  That way I can match up colors and lighting to make sure it looks correct.

One of these days I will finish it all up, but there is a lot left to do.  For example, I've got human heads to put in so it looks real, as well as all the rigging that will go into it.  In the end, however, I hope to have a fantastic model and demo reel piece.


Chinese Christmas: My Annual Letter to Santa

Dear Santa,

I apologize for the lateness in this letter and hope you'll forgive me.  As your elf intelligence agency probably has already informed you, my family and I were traveling during most of the month of December and haven't yet been able to celebrate our own family Christmas.  I hope this year you will please oblige in in our late celebration of Christmas and bring our presents sometime this next week.  We're calling the celebration "Chinese Christmas" since it's coming before the only new year celebration that follows it:

Anyway, I know that by now you're probably soaking in the jacuzzi still after bringing joy to all the world, but if you don't mind stopping by for our celebration, I'd appreciate it.

How is the missus?  After hundreds of years of marriage, have you guys figured out how to get along in all aspects? That would be some good knowledge to pass along if you've got some.  Even though I've been married for almost four years, I'm still learning how to be a husband.  Some days I feel like I've got a long way to go.

Here are my demands Christmas wishes for this year, in no order of importance:

If you could continue sending good antibodies our way this next year, it would be greatly appreciated.  Compared to the previous year, our health this year was spectacular.  It probably helped that we had two walls in our apartment replaced that had been destroyed by water damage (and likely mold) as well as having the air vents cleaned.  It has been nice to have our kids not be coughing all the time and, although they are kids and are prone to sickness, they have been much happier this year.

Additionally, if you could send some good health and cheer to all our family out there, that would be great.  Both mine and Sarah's parents are continually feeling the ticking of Father Time's clock and we would love to have them enjoy some good health this year.  Our kids are still young enough that they might not be forming long lasting memories yet and I would like them to remember their grandparents.  I was very young when my Grandma Reynolds passed away and I am always wishing that I could have been old enough to remember her.  She loved children and I would have liked to remember that.

If it's at all possible that you could stop Michael Bay from making any more movies, I'm sure many people would appreciate it.

Also if have any ins within the aerospace community where they need engineering visualization done, I would appreciate knowing about them.  I've been very fortunate in my current job to be involved in some high-profile concepts here at NASA and to work with some brilliant people.  However, with only one annually renewed contract keeping me employed, I constantly am wondering when it will feel like I have a career path to follow.  It gets a little old when the summer rolls around and I get to wonder whether or not I will be able to go to work on October 1st.  Some work outside of government entities would be nice, but I'd take any additional contracts at this point.

If you have any room in your sack for any vacations, that would be splendid.  This past year we had our first real "vacation" as a little family when we spent time with some good friends of ours in Destin, Florida.  It was one of the nicest times I've had in a while with my family.  The venue was great, the company was better, and I have lots of fond memories of that experience.  I've realized that I don't really have many desires for "stuff" anymore and that good memories with my kids are what I cherish the most.  Hopefully we'll get a chance to spend some quality time somewhere here in the future.

I honestly don't think there's much else that I could ask for right now, except maybe to spread out that feeling that we feel at Christmas a little longer.  I didn't mind delaying Christmas this year, honestly, because that meant that we could enjoy the spirit of the season a bit longer.  Heaven knows that the world needs more of that feeling.  Maybe I'll just keep delaying Christmas in the Reynolds home further and further until we have that feeling all the year round.

Just as a reminder, the fireplace is wired shut to keep the kids out of it.  I don't know why we have one in Texas, but just remember that when you arrive.  Maybe use some sort of quantum teleportation device or something.  That chimney is pretty gross.  I'll try to leave some good treats out for you on Chinese Christmas Eve.  Do you accept fortune cookies?

Hope you had a good regular Christmas.  See you soon!


-Brad Reynolds

P.S. I don't know if you remember my request from last year, but if you have any room in your sack for a 300 foot tall jaeger fighting robot, I could use one to take care of some of the cockroaches here.


P.P.S. Actually if you have a TARDIS, I wouldn't mind one of those either.


AMA Unclassified: Z-Suit

A few weeks ago I lost my office to my ten-month old son.  As such, my 3D free time at home is pretty limited.  But on the upswing, we don't have to worry about the kids waking each other up in the middle of the night!

I have been working on a rigged model of the Z-suit for work.  This is the next generation suit that NASA will use to replace the EMU.  There are currently two designs, the Z1, which is a soft-torso EVA suit, and the Z2 that incorporates hard-surface elements into a surface suit.  Both can be configured to be used in conjunction with the suitport.  

The rig I created has a wide variety of controls, including some sliders to increase the amount of dirt and weathering on the model.  I did a few test renders today to get the hang of how easy it was to work the rig:

On the surface of the moon 

Surface of Mars

More fun stuff I have worked on.  I hope to animate one of these guys here soon.


Dear Santa: My Letter for 2013

Dear Santa,

Greetings, good sir.  How goes life for you this past year?  I apologize for not being awake to say hello last Christmas.  With a one year old and another on the way, I was pretty beat by the time you made it to our house.  But thanks for visiting us last year.  I know the kids eventually will look forward to you coming to our house.  Right now they're in that state where they are confused that we're encouraging them to rip up the paper covering their gifts when the rest of the year they are forbidden from ripping up paper.  I'm sure you've seen it before, though, so I know you're not going to be surprised.

By the way, I apologize for the inconvenient entry into our apartment this year.  I had to wire our fireplace screen shut so that Leah would stop climbing into the fireplace and covering herself with residual ash and grime.  By now haven't you figured out quantum tunneling so you can just bypass the chimney altogether?  Maybe ask some of those scientists at CERN.  They can probably help you out.

I'm wondering, do you ever get email from spammers in Nigeria asking you for your bank account?  I'm sure you already have these people on the naughty list and have their email addresses on file.  Your surveillance system is better than the NSA, so I hear.  Speaking of that, maybe you can give some pointers to the NSA on how to ethically gather intelligence reports so that they get into less trouble.  I understand that there is a need to gather information to try and head off trouble before it begins, but I think some things are getting out of control.

Speaking of being out of control, this brings me to my first demand wish for the year: a brand new U.S. Congress full of people who have never served in office before.  I'm sure you've heard by now about the entire fiasco regarding the recent government shutdown that was initiated by congress.  In the end, they just wound up proving to me that they only have their next election in mind, not the actual solutions to anyone's problems.  I wound up working from home for sixteen days and was only two days away from having to take personal time and vacation in order to get paid and keep my health insurance.  Other contractors I work with weren't so lucky and spent a good month wondering how they were going to pay their bills or go to see family during the holidays.  Sure, the government wound up reimbursing both them and the civil servants, but that was after the fact when they realized that they goofed up royally.  Anyway, if you could spread some common sense among the voters this year, that would be much appreciated.  Any of the solutions I have come up with wind up sounding a lot like the end of the Tom Clancy novel "Debt of Honor."

Another thing I could probably use this year is a few months of good family health.  Ever since July, someone in my family has been either sick or injured at one point or another and it is starting to wear on my mental health.  My boy Sean suffered from a few seizures this past summer, but we are counting our blessings that he is doing well now.  My mother had a good health scare this past November after a surgery and we spent a good deal of time worrying and praying in her behalf.  Sarah injured her back badly once during the summer and I injured my back twice in the past six months.  Between all that, there have been colds, the flu, and ear infections between myself and my little family.  I'm just kind of sick of it all (pun intended).  So if you have some sort of panacea that you could slip into our stockings this year, I would appreciate it.

Work continues to go well, although I know we could use a few more customers.  We are doing well here at Johnson Space Center, but right now our work is limited solely to one team.  More contracts equals more stability for my job, despite the fact that it means more work.  I don't know if you have any inroads to anyone in the area here for visualization needs, but I hope we can get the word spread.

One thing I hope I can trouble you for is a little bit of scheduling magic for my extended family.  In a few months Sarah and I are going to go on a cruise with my parents, my brothers, and their wives.  Right now we're all on track to be able to go, but I know that last minute things might crop up.  If you can have some of your "special tactics" elves please work to ensure that everyone gets to go, I would much appreciate it.  This is probably the only time we will all get to go on a vacation like this together and I have been looking forward to it for quite some time.  Just to give you an idea, we started trying to plan it when I was a senior in high school, some thirteen years ago.  It's taken us over a decade to get it going, so I am hoping that everything goes smoothly.

I think we've got pretty much everything else covered for now.  I know little things will come up that will drive me nuts (like randomly illuminated "maintenance required" lights on the dashboard of the car), but we will handle them.  This year has been a little rough on me mentally and physically, but I'm apparently still standing.  Save some of your presents for those that really need a little more hope and cheer this holiday season.  I'm pretty well off in that regard.

I hope I see you this year, but if I'm asleep when you come this year, I hope you'll understand.  It's not easy wrestling two kiddies.  Plus, I'll probably be stuffed full of Indian food this year (Sarah and I have started a new tradition of going out to eat on Christmas Eve at a restaurant of non-Christian persuasion as to not inconvenience the owners).  Heaven knows I love my Indian food.

Take care, good luck on the flight, and watch out for predator drones.  I hear they are deadly.


-Brad Reynolds

P.S. If you have room in your sack, I actually wouldn't mind a 200 foot tall jaeger battle robot that I could use to fight any kaiju that I come across: