Inside the story: Covering a serial killer's tracks

Remote-control copter, camera brings new dimension to style of "48 Hours'" storytelling

Producers of "48 Hours Live the Tell: The Railroad Killer" give a behind-the-scenes look at how they visualized the trail of a multi-state serial killer.

In "48 Hours Live to Tell: The Railroad Killer," the lone survivor of a serial killer shares a firsthand account of her attack.

Since our "Live to Tell" stories are told only through the interviews of the victims, investigators and family, they tend to be more artistically expressive than a news story. Many of our "scenes" are built to tell the story visually without the interviewee saying anything.

While in pre-production on the "The Railroad Killer," we were introduced to the people at Heli Video based in Austin, Texas.

Pilot Eric Austin and Director of Photography Stephen Mick mount a Canon 5D or Canon 7D on a remote controlled, battery operated drone helicopter about five feet in length. We watched some of their demo work in which they were able to fly over small buildings or hover over motocross races, and believed that their system could be an intriguing new tool and could greatly enhance the look we were still developing for this new series.

Our ground cinematography on some of our previous stories has been outstanding and inventive and allowed the audience to imagine where things took place without us being re-creative.

The story we were covering was about a brave woman named Holly Dunn, the lone survivor of a ruthless serial killer nicknamed The Railroad Killer, because he rode the rails from state to state, often killing people as they slept.

Photos: Behind the scenes
Photos: The Railroad Killer & his victims
Video: Watch the episode

So we approached the guys at Heli Video to see if they could bring a new dimension to our style of storytelling. They were eager to bring their ideas, and artistic vision, to enhance the episode in ways we could not have imagined.

Our first shoot with the drone chopper took place in and around Weimer Texas, where some of the killings related to this story had occurred more than 10 years ago.

The chopper was able to give us shots establishing the town - but more importantly, was able to fly over the rail line that ran through Weimer. With permission from the town, Eric and Steve were able to fly the drone from behind the tree line, over to the tracks, and continue down the track in a way a jib or crane never could. They also helped us establish our favorite metaphor in the show by flying down one rail line and pulling up to reveal an intersecting rail line, which we used to illustrate the intersection of our crimes in Texas and Kentucky.

The crew then joined us in Lexington, Ky., at the scene where Holly was attacked. We had a difficult story to illustrate here because she left a house party and crossed through a tree line onto some railroad tracks and walked for a while down the tracks. But the chopper proved to be the perfect tool. The guys brought a Canon 1D to the scene, since they believed it would be even better in the low-light conditions we would face.

They started flying backwards, showing us the street of houses, passed through the tree line, pivoted and pointed down the dark tracks. It's an amazing shot! Pulled off in the dark with Eric having to navigate trees, power lines and homes, all while having very little direct eye contact with his chopper. We should add, that both Eric and Steve bring an attitude of safety first to every shot they do. And a difficult shot like this was very carefully planned to ensure the safety of the chopper, the people on the ground and the nearby homes.

The shot that seems to be everyone's favorite in the show, happened at a horse farm in Lexington. Holly's sister talks about having a dream and running down fields. We expressed our concerns to Eric and Steve about making sure our shot did not look like a re-creation, and they came up with a shot that is simply stunning, starting out flying low and fast over some grass, then pulling up high and circling over the nearby trees. It's simply amazing.

The footage requires minimal stabilization and then got cut right into our segments. We enjoyed working with them, and hope we find other "48 Hours Live To Tell" episodes, or episodes of "48 Hours Mystery" that can utilize their skills.