By S.D. Katz
August 29, 2019
“If no one is dying, nothing is exploding and no one is trying to kill each other, you shouldn’t be calling me,” says Jane Wu, a storyboard artist with credits including “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” “Thor: Ragnarok” and Disney’s upcoming live-action remake of “Mulan.”
Wu is one of the few women who work in this segment of the business, where artists sketch out the action sequences that the rest of a movie’s crew will spend months realizing for the big screen.
Wu says she used the more generic name J. Wu in the early part of her career. With her talents now in high demand, she doesn’t need the abbreviation. “By the time I got a shot at ‘The Avengers,’ they already knew my name,” she says. “[Director] Joss [Whedon] was looking for more action people and asked, ‘Who is this person that I keep hearing about?’ That got him curious enough to bring me in, and I got the gig.”
A graduate of Otis College of Art and Design, Wu started her career by opening a comic book shop in the 1990s and drawing comics in her spare time. She was a student of the traditional Chinese martial art wushu, and that knowledge helped her draw technically correct poses when choreographing fight scenes.
Her first break was being hired as a character designer for the late-1990s animated TV series “Men in Black.” Wu says she preferred story and sequential art, and her skeptical director agreed to give her a shot at storyboarding.
“I failed miserably,” Wu says. “I didn’t understand scene construction.” She was advised to watch old black-and-white movies with the sound off; things began to click after a few months.
She began storyboarding on Season 2 of “Men in Black,” as well as producing and directing a couple of episodes. She moved on to storyboarding the animated “Godzilla: The Series,” the “Tinker Bell” video series and the Disney sequel “Mulan 2.”
She broke into live-action storyboarding with an uncredited turn on “The A-Team” and followed it up with “Captain America: The First Avenger” and “Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters.” But the move brought new challenges.
“I was the only woman in the story pit,” she says. “No women directors, no women story artists. I knew I needed to be one of the boys, so I would play basketball at lunch with everyone and talk nerd stuff to fit in, and with my tomboy upbringing, I was shortly in the club and accepted by the pack.”
Working in New York on the “Sopranos” prequel, Wu faced another challenge to her action skill set. “I wanted to Dutch [tilt] one of the shots to heighten the action, but I was told ‘The Sopranos’ is about realism not fantasy.”
Her next gig opens another new door: serving as a producer alongside director Alan Taylor on “Gold Mountain,” about the 1850s San Francisco gold rush.
Ultimately, Wu didn’t wind up using a flying kick to break down barriers in the industry; her storyboard sketches did.