One of the biggest YouTube videos of the year, YouTube's own year-in-review video "Rewind," starts as a spreadsheet. It's 400 rows and 10 columns filled with the names of videos, YouTube creators, songs, memes and trends that sum up the year in pop culture, a long list of references compiled from a similarly long list of videos that YouTube passes to Portal A, the production company that's produced every Rewind video since 2011.
"The first thing we do as a team is we watch everything," said Kai Hasson, creative director at Portal A. "There's a period of two-and-a-half weeks or so that we're just watching a lot of videos."
There's good reason for the deep-dive. YouTube Rewind may have been conceived in 2010 as a way for the Google-owned video service to showcase the year's top videos on the service. But as YouTube and the videos people upload to it have penetrated deeper into the mainstream, Rewind has become as much of a showcase of YouTube as of pop culture.
"When I think about what Rewind this year represents to me, it's YouTube stars in particular, but YouTube culture had maybe its biggest crossover year we've had," said Kevin Allocca, YouTube's head of culture and trends. "And the line between mainstream culture and YouTube culture are almost nonexistent,"
As an example of that line-blurring, this year's Rewind video highlights a meme that's not readily associated with YouTube: The Dress. While it spawned a bunch of parody videos on YouTube, the black-and-blue or white-and-gold garment that broke the internet back in February originated on Tumblr and gained attention on BuzzFeed. But that didn't really matter.
"Rewind is a celebration of culture and the internet," Mr. Hasso said. "One of the amazing things about the project is that it's not simply [a matter of] 'was this a YouTube video?' The way we all view YouTube, it's big enough where it kind of houses everything."
So The Dress made the list of references that Portal A needed to include in Rewind. So did Sia's "Elastic Heart" music video, the karaoke competitions popularized by "The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon" and The Weeknd's hit song "Can't Feel My Face." The next challenge was figuring out how to mash these seemingly disparate references cohesively into one relatively short video.
"There's like a hundred creators and hundreds of memes in five minutes. So how do you check off all those boxes and still make an enjoyable video to watch and not feel chaotic?" said Portal A managing partner Zach Blume.
That's where the spreadsheet comes in.
After everyone at Portal A watches the videos, the team creates presentation documents and spreadsheets that "break those references down into props, wardrobe, sets, anything that sticks out," Mr. Hasson said. That process helps to filter out the most memorable aspect of any video "because you need to be able to communicate it very quickly." It also helps Portal A's team identify how to combine references into segments of the video.
When it came to combining the aforementioned references, Portal A decided to pit rival groups of YouTube stars dressed in blue-and-black or white-and-gold lip-sync battling in the cage from "Elastic Heart" while a remix of The Weeknd's song by The Hood Internet plays in the background. These meme mashups enable Portal A to weave in references that mainstream audiences should get with YouTube stars or other memes that only hardcore YouTube viewers may recognize.