Seventeen years after selling Pixar to Apple co-founder Steve Jobs for $10m, George Lucas has launched his own digital animation unit called Lucasfilm Animation.

These days Pixar is riding high on a market capitalisation of $3.3bn, fuelled by the wolrdwide success of titles like Toy Story and Monsters, Inc. Its films are released for the time being by Disney.

That, allied to a growing number of lucrative industry partnerships and stalled progress on his own studio collaborations, convinced Lucas it was time to go it alone in the animated production sector.

"Lucasfilm Animation will now have the flexibility to develop and create its own films," Lucas spokeswoman Lynne Hale told today's Los Angeles Times.

"It's extremely exciting to have the opportunity to start the search for directors to build projects around."

So far no projects have been announced at the unit, which the report said would enjoy more autonomy from its effects house parent company, Industrial Light & Magic (ILM).

Staff currently comprises ILM's nine-person animation development team led by Patty Blau, although Hale said the roster would expand through external recruits and ILM's 1,200-strong pool of effects experts.

In 1997 ILM tried to create its first wholly animated film, Frankenstein, at Universal Pictures, but the project fell through after a change of studio personnel.

Since then Lucas has witnessed Pixar and Disney, DreamWorks SKG and Pacific Data Images, and 20th Century Fox and Blue Sky Studios all partner up on a string of animated hits including the aforementioned Monsters, Inc, Shrek and Ice Age.

Meanwhile ILM's role has continued as an effects house, contributing to many studio productions including two of this summer's blockbusters-elect, The Hulk and Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines.

A spokesperson for Lucasfilm contacted by Screen Daily said the company had nothing to add to the published report.

Pixar's latest film, Finding Nemo, will be released on May 30.