David Wells likes automating things that aren’t supposed to move.
Over his four-decade, out-of-the-box career, the Sundre-area mechanical engineer has created science fiction props for TV and film projects, robotic equipment to dispose of nuclear waste, and is now refurbishing the Calaway Park haunted house in Calgary.
Wells is also the only person who inspects and signs off on new carnival rides for Alberta, British Columbia and Saskatchewan.
While his career arc hasn’t been the most conventional — or as Wells puts it, “the most rectilinear and painted grey,” he loves all the chances he’s had to go freestyle.
Creative opportunities “suit my personality,” said Wells, who relishes figuring out new challenges.
One of his next projects will be re-animating old animatronic mannequins displayed in the Museum of Fear and Wonder in Bergen.
Among the museum’s wax heads and antique dolls are old advertising figures — including a wizened Mrs. Santa Claus — that were once mechanized, but have since fallen into disrepair.
Wells has lived in the scenic Bearberry Creek area near Sundre for 30 years.
He was born 64 years ago in Red Deer, and spent a couple of years on a farm near Penhold before his father died and his mother moved the family to Edmonton.
After getting a mechanical engineering degree from the University of British Columbia, Wells initially worked in fabrication for a Calgary equipment company.
While much of his work “wasn’t overly sexy” — like figuring out how to regulate road sand dispensed by trucks — he believes it always required a lot of creative energy.
Wells also once worked for a company that made robotic skid steers to handle radioactive wastes that are too dangerous for human exposure.
Word of his eclectic problem-solving skills brought him to the attention of producers of the 1990s Disney TV series Honey I Shrunk the Kids, and Wells was hired to make props look animated and believable.
“I eventually got the hang of making things look like they work,” he said — from a “ray gun” to a light-blinking shrinking machine.
“We’d have to make big and small versions of things,” Wells recalled — and they all had to look ultra-realistic — even if just caught on camera for a few seconds.
When the Honey I Shrunk the Kids TV series ended after three years, Wells and several friends formed their own props company,
The Gizmo Shop, which worked on Jackie Chan’s movie Shanghai Noon, Rat Race, and others.
More recently Wells was asked to fix a problem with the Calaway Park shooting gallery. That association has continued over many years, with Wells now wrapping up an update of the park’s Haunted House.
“It was once — to be frank — very lame,” he recalled.
Originally part of a Flintstones amusement park near Hope, B.C., the haunted house’s rooms had a cave-like ambiance.
In Wells’ new back story for the attraction, a landslide has partially buried a Victorian hotel. Among the automated dioramas is a disembodied hand writing a letter, a ghostly girl appearing in a dresser mirror, a Grim Reaper in a rocking chair, and a skeleton sitting on the toilet, reading a newspaper.
The latter is a particular hit with the park’s youngest patrons, said Wells, who aims to create scenarios that can be reinterpreted through repeat visits. His goal is to be creepy, but not terrifying, for the children and t’weens who are Calaway Park’s target customers.
Wells’ latest scary creation is a furnace room with a automated boiler that takes on monstrous proportions. “It’s been great fun, and (park owners) have absolutely trusted me to do it,” said the engineer.
He feels he became Western Canada’s only arbiter of new amusement rides because younger engineers aren’t interested in the job.
Wells admits liability insurance is usually prohibitively expensive, but he managed to attain some through his Calaway Park association.
From checking out amusement rides, Wells has also taken on more fateful contracts — such as creating a climate-controlled chamber at the Blackfoot Crossing Museum, near Calgary, so Chief Crowfoot’s signing robe can be repatriated from Exeter, England.
The CBC also recently asked him to figure out how to update an aging transmission tower — without taking the network off the air.
“So many odd-ball projects,” said Wells, with a chuckle. But he’s glad to tackle a new challenge every day.