Alex Pacheco, 27, has some advice for fellow independent filmmakers: “If you’re trying to make a feature-length film, you have to make a short first.” A good short, that is.

You probably have to know a thing or two about lighting, as well. Perhaps that’s why Pacheco’s first major short film, Unfortunate Man, is so good. For the past few years, he’s been hauling cables and sandbags around the sets of big-budget features, working as an electrical grip. He’s been watching how the big boys do it, how Barry Levinson and Sydney Pollack create films. He’s also made some talented friends along the way.

Friends like Tim Gordon, 30, a self-taught cameraman. Gordon and Pacheco met while working as electrical grips on films in the D.C. area. Pacheco asked Gordon to help out with Unfortunate Man. Gordon obliged, working days as a grip on big-budget films, occasional weekends on Pacheco’s film, and evenings on his own short, Furious Seasons.

This week, both films debut at a public screening at the Hirshhorn Museum, along with Third Meridian, a science fiction short by Gene Sullivan, a colleague of Gordon and Pacheco’s. All three filmmakers, who worked together as grips on such films as Enemy of the State, Contact, and Deep Impact, place a strong emphasis on production values. “Our concentration is on cinematography,” says Pacheco.

Indeed, Unfortunate Man, a day in the life of a young man diagnosed with a possible brain tumor, includes almost no dialogue; Furious Seasons, based on a Raymond Carver story about a man’s complex (and incestuous) sexual past, depends largely on highly stylized photography. Pacheco wrote, produced, and directed his film over a period of two years, for less than $5,000. “If you want to make a really good film, you don’t have to spend a lot of money,” he says. Furious Seasons, which includes a few more complex techniques and was filmed on location in rural Virginia, cost Gordon and his partners $30,000—a modest sum by industry standards. “If you don’t have enough money to make a feature,” says Gordon, “then you have to make a short to show people that you could make a feature.”

“Ultimately, I’ve learned that if no one’s interested in my films,” Pacheco says, “I could still realistically make them with little money. It would take longer, but it could be done.”—Guy Raz

Furious Seasons, Unfortunate Man, and Third Meridian premiere on Thursday, June 24, at 8 p.m. at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.